Too many Toucans

A toucan is a toucan, right? And if a toucan landed on a nearby fence post, it would not be particularly hard to identify. “There’s a toucan!” you would shout giddily. No need to go running for the bird book.

By Elena Newmark, age 16

However, if you happen to be in Costa Rica when this toucan appears, you’ll find that when you smugly paw through the bird book to confirm your sighting (“Ha! Toucan! I knew it!”) there are, in fact, six different kinds of toucans. Unless you have an excellent memory for details, you have little chance of correctly identifying the critter.

I know this to be true because it happened to me last spring on a trip to the aforementioned tropical country.

Here in New England, if you see a small blue bird, flitting about like a chip of sapphire, there’s no messing around: it’s an Indigo Bunting. In Costa Rica, there are piles of brilliant blue birds to confuse you. Here, every hummingbird is a Ruby-throated. In Costa Rica, a hummingbird could sit on top of your binoculars laughing its head off and you still might not be able to identify it. This also happened to me. Costa Rica is home to 50 different species of hummingbirds.

A Costa Rican jungle is biodiversity in action. The biodiversity of a region refers to the number of different types of life forms it contains, from the smallest microbes and insects to the tallest trees and biggest predators.

The tiny country of Costa Rica, at approximately half the size of Maine, is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. Fully 10% of all existing bird species live there or pass through on migratory routes. The forests and surrounding oceans brim with an astounding variety of plants, fish, mammals, amphibians and reptiles.

On the country’s Pacific coast, the lowland rainforest of Corcovado has one of the densest concentrations of different species on the planet. We spent three days trekking through this jungle and indeed the place was crawling, creeping, and exploding with life. Snakes slithered from our footsteps, peccaries snorted in the underbrush, monkeys threw sticks, tapirs roamed the beaches, scarlet macaws screamed through the dawn, ticks chomped, and plants dripped into our path.

Despite the apparent health of ecosystems such as this, the planet today is losing species at an astounding rate. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, a collaboration between hundreds of governmental and non-governmental organizations worldwide, estimates the current rate of extinctions to be 1,000-10,000 times more than it would be naturally. Human activities such as habitat destruction, agricultural practices, introduction of invasive species, and over-harvesting of resources, are the primary driving forces.

Renowned Pulitzer-Prize winning biologist E.O. Wilson has written that significant loss of biodiversity poses threats to the fabric of life which equal or surpass even those posed by climate change. Many scientists believe we are standing on the brink of the sixth great mass extinction in the history of the planet Earth. The last mass extinction, probably caused by a meteorite strike, occurred 65 million years ago and wiped out the dinosaurs. Rebuilding biodiversity after such an event can take millions of years.

Why does biodiversity have such profound implications for the ability of life to survive? Change is inevitable in any living system: climate patterns shift, diseases appear, new species turn up while others drop out. Ecosystems rely on biodiversity to remain productive and healthy throughout these changes.

When I was a teenager a freak wind storm caused major damage to every one of the line of gorgeous cherry trees planted along my city street. My mother wondered why they picked a variety so prone to wind damage. In actuality, the problem was the planting of a large number of the same tree. One year there may be ferocious wind, the next year terrible drought or a beetle that eats only ash trees. A mix of plantings increases the odds that some trees will survive and thrive.

When Dutch Elm Disease struck the United States around the middle of the last century, many communities lost more than half of their urban street trees. In part because of this legacy foresters now recommend planting a large variety of species to prevent losses of the same magnitude from unforeseen future stressors.

It is also true that the greater the variety within each species, the greater the chance that some individuals of that species will be able to weather adversities and pass their strengths along to their children. The fewer individuals left of a given species, the less health and vigor is seen in the entire population.

The planet’s environment is being altered at a staggering rate at the same time that our actions are dramatically diminishing the variety of lifeforms, thereby also reducing the ability of plants and animals to adapt to change.

This loss of diversity isn’t just a problem for peccaries in the rainforest: it poses threats to the health of the agricultural crops that we depend on for food, our ability to discover new treatments for disease, and the functioning of the natural systems that regulate carbon, oxygen and water.

Many cutting-edge techniques such as genetic engineering, in which desirable traits from one organism are transferred into another organism, rely on nature to invent the desirable traits in the first place. Modern science draws constantly from the vast pool of chemicals manufactured by the world’s plant and animal life to devise new medicines.

Even at the horizons of human inventiveness, we still depend on the natural variability that comes from a rich and diverse pool of species with many individuals flitting through the trees, creeping along the ground, and growing out of the cracks.

Gold Leaf and Butterflies

I’m standing in the basement of a century-old three story brick apartment building in Boston. The space measures forty by sixty feet, or about the same area as a good-sized house. This particular basement is filled with stuff, packed in so tightly that it is difficult to move a ShopVac around the piles.

My parents moved into this building over 40 years ago. My Danish mother, an art conservator by training, whom we all suspected was really a pirate, had a workshop down in the basement. She would disappear for days at a time, building furniture, restoring artworks, puffing away on her pipe, and bartering with Siberian yak traders, who would pass that way from time to time.

The building had three apartments; my folks lived on one floor, and there were renters on the other two. For most of my family’s tenure, another somewhat fuzzy pirate-type, named Larry, lived on the first floor.

There were certain ways in which Larry and my mom understood each other perfectly. They were both incredible craftspeople who could make anything with their hands. They understood materials and they hated the poor quality of modern goods and the rampant waste of modern society.

And so, they both saved and collected things. Walking along the street, they would spot an old well-made rolling chair on someone’s garbage pile. Into the basement it would go. A decent lamp in need of re-wiring? The basement. Sales on acid-free paper, book-binding cloth and other curious items with unfathomable future uses? The basement. Viking longboats, in good condition? Yeah, the basement.

Larry spent a lot of time in underbelly of the building. He turned one corner into a sound-proof music room, he brought in table saws and drill presses, he strung lights, sinks and deer’s heads from the ceiling and had wild parties. Although he himself moved out of the building a while back, his stuff never got around to following along. Apparently, he has nowhere to put it.

When my mom passed away a few years ago the basement fell under a mysterious enchantment and faded from our memories. Oddly, I didn’t even see it when I was passing through to put out the garbage for my dad or grab a shovel to clear some snow.

But last month, during a visit to Boston, I was zipping obliviously through the basement on some minor errand when a curious thing happened. The magical haze of cobwebs and dust, which was slowly obscuring all traces of the bustling civilization that had once flourished down there, cleared for an instant. I realized that someone had to deal with the stuff in the basement.

I know I keep saying the basement was full of “stuff.” If only. “Stuff” is badly made, often intentionally manufactured to break, wear out, or become obsolete relatively quickly, thereby requiring the purchase of yet more stuff. It’s what most of us buy most of the time.

This basement, however, is largely filled with real things. Things that were built to last, things that were salvaged from a past when raw materials, such as metal and wood, were valued enough to be used carefully.

On this spring day I’m in the basement to meet Larry so we can begin the clearing process. Right on time, he strolls down the stairs.

We roam around, feeling lost and nostalgic, identifying what is his and what was my mom’s. I look at his pile, steadily growing as he pulls things from the rubble. “They don’t make chairs like this anymore,” he says as he hesitates before putting three old rolling chairs in the give away pile.

Nevertheless, he takes rusted fans (I can fix this up), old PVC pipe (I’ll make cubbies out of this), boxes of mixed screws and bolts. He agrees to get the bulk of his stash out by July. It would easily fill a few small moving trucks.

I open a box marked by my mother as “træuld.” The Danish translates delightfully as “tree wool.” Sure enough, in the box are long spaghetti-thin aromatic cedar wood tendrils, curled in tight springy ringlets, the packing materials from some ancient shipment of old country goods. I wonder if it’s been saved all these years for some higher purpose than to become kindling in my wood stove.

As I roam, I think about trash-pickers the world round, who re-melt bent nails to make new ones, who tie together broken string to make fishing nets, who expose themselves and their children to terrible toxins as they disassemble our old computers and cell phones to recover precious metals.

To honor this spirit, to honor my mother and Larry, who believed in using things up, all the way, to honor this basement chock full of the world’s irreplaceable finite resources, I know I will need to find homes for most everything in here.

Someday, when things are scarcer than they are now, we will want back all of our well made rolling chairs, our stainless steel sinks, our Christmas lights, our acid-free paper. I will not be the one who throws it in the landfill.

I pick up another slim box nearly pancaked with age. My mother’s neat handwriting on the side says: Gold Leaf and Butterflies. I expect nothing less as I open it.

In one bag is a heavy pack of gold leaf, the real thing, squares of the thinnest imaginable layers of gold, thinner than paper, a pirate’s treasure glowing from between dull layers of brown tissue. Sometimes, you see, a person needs gold leaf.

Next to this bag are tiny ziplocs with butterfly wings, the real things, collected over a lifetime of stopping by the roadside to pick up the pieces of humankind’s collisions with the natural world.

Rumor has it that if you head to Iceland during their summer of limitless light and poke around in backyards you may find an odd, small patch of un-mowed, un-tended land.

I’ve heard that this tiny spot of wildness is a conciliatory gesture to the elves, gnomes, and trolls that dwell in Scandinavian countries, giving them a place to feel at home amid the trimmed grass and paved driveways.

Perhaps it’s also a sign of humility. Icelanders live rather close to the claiming edge of nature, as the world was reminded last year when the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull Volcano smothered part of the country in gray dust and disrupted air traffic over the Atlantic for nearly a month.

In such a place, it might not hurt to have a daily reminder, if only by letting be some weeds in the backyard, that we’re not entirely in charge here.

I haven’t been able to confirm the Icelandic weed-patch rumor, and I imagine it to be about as true or false as the elves themselves. Yet the idea fascinates me. What could be more antithetical to the American lawn than leaving a square of it unmanaged?

The lawn is all about control over nature, swaths of unbroken sameness, and to a degree, about keeping out the wilderness. The un-mown plot is about relinquishing control, celebrating the variety of whatever grows, and putting up with weed seeds blowing into your carefully manicured beds of pedruliums. It’s about allowing someone else to call the shots, right in front of your nose, right there on your very own lawn. Understandably, it’s a little hard to swallow.

It wouldn’t really matter what we did with our lawns if there weren’t so many of them, and if caring for them didn’t have such a large impact.

Cristina Milesi at the University of Montana used satellite date to estimate that Americans have covered 128,000 square kilometers with lawn grass. This is the largest area of any irrigated crop in the US, and represents about 1-2% of the entire land area of the country.

Most of this lawn grass requires moderately fertile, ever so slightly acidic, well-drained soil, and about an inch of water per week. In other words, the majority of us are trying to grow lawns in a hostile climate: too wet, too dry, too lean, too hot, too sandy, too acidic.

In order to maintain lawns that are continually green and weed-free, we therefore must lavish an absurd outpouring of resources on our grass. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that to feed our obsession, every year we spread 70 million pounds of active pesticide ingredients on our lawns and spend about 5 billion dollars on fertilizers made from petroleum products. These chemicals wind up in our water, our air, our children, our pets, and our wildlife, with disturbing implications on all fronts.

Watering lawns uses 30-60% of all urban fresh water, much of it in places that are already draining dry their rivers and reservoirs. To top it off, gasoline-powered mowers contribute about 5% to the nation’s air pollution; one hour of mowing pollutes approximately the same amount as driving 45 miles.

You begin to wonder, it is all necessary? Can’t we just learn to play nice with the neighborhood dandelions, and the local wood elves while we’re at it?

I aspire to being at peace with my dandelions. No one has to tell me that the rambunctious yellow flowers are delightful popping up in a sea of green. Nor do I need convincing that the airy spheres of their seed heads, each a star-filled galaxy of child’s dreams waiting to be wished, are simply gorgeous.

And yet, I just can’t rid myself of the impression that a lawn full of dandelions gone to seed looks like a weed lot. I resent this unshakable, irrational conviction, truly I do, but it’s there, rooted deeply into my consciousness with all the tenacity of, well, a dandelion.

I’ve come to this: I’ve made a sort of Hippocratic Oath with my lawn. Just as graduating doctors promise not to harm their patients, so have I promised to try to do no harm as I care for my lawn. I don’t water, I don’t fertilize, I don’t use herbicides or pesticides.

Sometimes I’ll toss a spare handful or two of compost out onto the lawn. Ha, I’ll think triumphantly, that takes care of fertilizer!

I mow infrequently with a manual push-mower. It always starts and I’m never out of gas, at least not for the mower.

It’s a shaky peace, I admit. Every year there is, perhaps, a little less grass and bit more clover, black medic, sheep sorrel, and violets. I’m happy to report that there are no dandelions, because I pull those, which irks my nine-year old to no end.

There’s also no toxic run-off from my lawn into the sewer and then on into the slowly clearing waters of the Androscoggin. I’m not poisoning my earthworms or songbirds, or children for that matter. I’m not putting gasoline from the Middle-East in yet another machine.

And, I have a small un-mowed patch around my laundry pole, which I confess to monitoring for really challenging weeds, like vetch. Vetch is a beautiful purple vining plant which, like clover, takes nitrogen out of the air, where it does no one any good, and puts in the soil where your plants can use it. Nevertheless, it’s an aggressive weed and I pull it on sight. I wonder whether this scares off the gnomes. Maybe they like vetch.

But, somehow we all muddle through together every summer: me, the grass, the hummingbirds, the robins, the ants, the bees, and the nine-year-olds.

What choice do we have, really? Maybe we could just stop mowing altogether. Stay tuned for a future column on what happened when one local resident did just that.

Sanctuary for the Bees

Why would a bee need a sanctuary? Bees are not hunted in the manner of large charismatic animals, such as elephants. They don’t threaten livestock, in the way of wolves or foxes. Nor do they need vast plains on which to roam, like antelopes and caribou.

Why, then are there bee sanctuaries sprouting up, brightly, here and there, like clover in the lawn? Bees, it appears, need sanctuaries so they can just be bees, living like bees are supposed to live: pollinating flowers, making nests, swarming, digging, and buzzing.

Consider the honey bee, a creature almost unimpeachably helpful to humans. Not native to North America, honey bees were imported from Europe in the 1600’s because of their ability, like Rumpelstiltskin, to turn straw into gold, to change the lowly plants of field and wayside into vats of gleaming, amber honey.

Along with this miracle of transformation, honey bees are estimated to pollinate about one third of all the food we eat, either directly, for many fruits and nuts, or indirectly, by pollinating plants consumed by farm animals. These pollination services generate $15 billion worth of crops in the United States alone.

Most of us imagine that bees go about their business of making honey and pollinating plants by waking up on fine spring days, packing the kids off to school, and flying out the backdoor for a busy day of flower flitting.

The reality is a bit less romantic. The honey bees responsible for pollinating major U.S. crops are loaded on trucks, wrapped in plastic, and driven hundreds if not thousands of miles to where they are needed. They are often fed high fructose corn syrup to give them the energy to accomplish their Herculean tasks. Think of it: feeding corn syrup to a honey bee. That, surely, is nature turned on her head.

The U.S. almond crop, one of the country’s most lucrative, now covers over a half million acres in California’s Central Valley. This land, on which nothing grows but almond trees, is breathtakingly beautiful when in bloom, but it’s as barren as a desert to most animal and insect life.

There is no balance of prey and predator to protect the trees from disease, so pesticides and herbicides must be used. There is no natural cycle of growth and decay to replenish the soil, so chemical fertilizers must be applied. When the almond crop has finished blooming, there is no other food to sustain a population of local bees, so bees must be imported, from as far away as the East coast and even Australia.

Yet, in our efforts to extract as much as possible from nature, we risk destroying the workings of systems we don’t fully understand. Over the last few decades honey bees in the United States have been afflicted by a rapid and dramatic decline, known as “Colony Collapse Disorder.” Bee keepers open their hives to find that their workers had vanished overnight, never to return. Up to one third of U.S. hives have disappeared.

Although scientists have been unable to pinpoint an exact cause for disappearing bees, continuing research implicates a combination of stresses including pesticides, parasitic mites, habitat loss, disease, and changes in plant flowering times triggered by global warming. Many native bee populations are also in sharp decline, likely affected by the same stresses as honey bees.

What bees need sanctuary from is this death by a thousand cuts. I came across the concept of a bee sanctuary in a recent documentary called Queen of the Sun. This beautiful film follows the plight of honey bees through commentaries by bee keepers, entomologists, writers, and philosophers.

Gunther Hauk maintains a small farm in Illinois with a honey bee sanctuary at its heart. It is a place where bees can find a wide variety of flowers, full of nectar, free of pesticides, and blooming for the entire season. It is a place where bees can live and breed within a functioning ecosystem, where they might be able to develop natural resistance to some of the diseases and parasites to which they are susceptible.

It’s also a place where bees work for people, making honey and pollinating crops. Farms like Hauk’s strike a balance between gathering the resources that people need to thrive, while continuing to let natural systems provide some of the heavy lifting of fertilizing plants, fighting disease, building soil, cleaning water, and maintaining a balance of pests and predators. This is important because, simply put, we don’t know how to replace all the services provided by nature; we have to let her do some of the work.

It all makes sense, yet what I found most striking about the people profiled in Queen of the Sun is that everyone in the film is madly intoxicated with bees. Bee keeper Yvon Achard brushes his moustache against honey combs crawling with bees. “They like it,” he announces happily, grinning widely at the camera. It’s clear that Achard likes it. And the bees? They don’t sting him, at least not while we’re watching.

All the romantic communing with bees depicted in the film is, perhaps, a bit over-the-top. Even if I had a moustache (which, maybe I will if Governor LePage has his druthers), I would not likely be kissing honey bees with it. Nevertheless, the film conveys an important message. If our only goal in interacting with nature is one of extraction, we will continue to disrupt system after system that we don’t comprehend and don’t know how to fix.

If, on the other hand, we can drum up some affection for the plants and animals we derive our nourishment from, there will be limits on the degree to which we can tolerate exploiting them. This in turn may protect us from ruining the natural systems we rely on for survival. The needs of other living creatures, such as food, clean air and water, and healthy soils–are largely the same as our needs.

At about this time last year, when a tendril of warmth had snaked into the spring winds, I put a clipboard in my garage. My intent was to record every time I biked somewhere instead of driving.

Word Cloud of bike trips from two months in spring

For two months I dutifully noted the distance and destination of each utilitarian bike trip, not including recreational rides. During this time I made 303 one-way trips, covering 310 miles. These were the daily bread and butter of transportation: the post office, the library, school, pizza, last-minute dinner ingredients, kids’ activities, and seeing friends. Most trips were a mile or less; a handful were over three.

In this country, about half of all trips people make are shorter than three miles, yet only one or two percent are made by bike. In the Netherlands, about one third of trips are by bike.

Today, I dug out my record book and made a word cloud from my list of last spring’s destinations. Word clouds are terrific fun. To make one, you enter a list of words or text into a cloud-making program (try http://www.wordle.net); the more often a word appears in the list, the larger it is in the resulting image.

The word cloud accompanying this column is a quirky slice of my life last spring. I worked largely from home so my bike trips were dominated by taking the kids to and from school–refreshing bookends for hours at the computer.

Reading the cloud, I can see that last spring the kids were involved in a theater group, I had an unusually large volunteer commitment, I often biked to the track to jog, and our family had just discovered the Big Top Deli made scrumptious pizza.

I stuck with my note-taking until a week after Cote’s ice cream opened for the season. I didn’t want the word “Cote’s” to start towering over other more wholesome words such as “School” and “Farmer’s Market.” I let it remain where it was, resting unobtrusively atop the “C” in School, a small sign of changing weather ahead.

Why put all this effort into biking? Mostly because I like it. I like the tingly, edgy, slightly adventurous feeling of setting out on my bike, an unusual sensation in an ordinary life of work, kids, and errands. As author Diane Ackerman says, when she’s on her bike, “The world is breaking someone else’s heart.”

Part of the joie de vivre arises from the unsurpassed effortlessness of a short bike ride. Cycling is the planet’s most efficient form of transportation. Ever. Pound for pound, a person on a bicycle expends less energy than any creature or machine covering the same distance. Less than a salmon swimming, less than eagle flying, less than a gazelle running, less than a car driving.

A friend once asked if it was hard to factor in extra time to get places on my bike. On the contrary, for short trips the time difference is so trivial as to be nonexistent, especially when drivers need to park and then walk to their destinations. A one mile trip is easily covered on a bike in 4-5 minutes; and then one parks like royalty, right by the front door.

For me, this would all be enough to keep me riding: this daily turning of tires through sun-filled puddles, of knowing potholes by name, of sharp spring days, and even of riding at the back, just a middle-aged mom, as my kids cruise ahead, no-hands, and pop their front wheels over curbs without pausing, except perhaps to wait for me to catch up.

But biking offers other inducements. For one, you can save quite a bit of money. Factoring out the fixed costs of driving, such as insurance, the American Automobile Association calculates it costs about 36 cents per mile to drive a small car and 50 cents per mile to drive a minivan (based on driving 10,000 miles per year with gas at a delightful $2.60 per gallon). I figure that I save about $1000 a year, even after paying for bike maintenance.

Mile for mile, short car trips, the ones that could be most easily replaced by bike trips, are the most environmentally damaging driving that we do. Cars emit far more pollution and get significantly lower gas mileage in the first few minutes of being driven than after warming up.

Although I do more than my share of driving, I nevertheless also find it satisfying to opt out, for a few minutes every day, from my continual contributions to the environmental mess we’re already in.

It’s our kids, of course, that will bear the brunt of all the damage we’ve done driving them everywhere. They will live in a world degraded by the effects of a rapidly changing climate, by resource depletion, habitat loss, and mass extinctions.

Which is why I occasionally find myself moved almost to tears when I see my kids pedaling about. It is, after all, the quality of their own lives they protect as they pedal.

This fall my sixth grader started biking to school by herself. One morning last September, as rain slammed around the house, she asked for a ride. I gave her five “free ride” coupons to use any time she wanted during the upcoming year. She thanked me, thought for a minute, and then set out on her bike.

A half year later, I’ve driven her to school exactly once. Most mornings she is joined by a friend who first rides a mile to get to our house. The lure of independence, a few sparkling minutes to toss leaves at the sky and shout hello to the new day, has proven a stronger motivator for both these girls than getting out of the rain.

I can live with this image–our children biking off into a hopeful future, wind at their backs, not waiting for us to catch up.

The sculpture on my sister’s bookcase is dancing. Its face is a mask, a long stark rectangle painted white, with simple black dots for eyes and a bit of black paint on the nose and cheeks.

Dogon Dancer

The rest of it, however, is alive with color and pattern. It is a striking bright green overlaid with fringes of pumpkin orange, fiery red, squares of strong blue and stars of sharp yellow. Graphic black stripes with white dots accent this carnival of color.

Indeed, the colors are so strong, you would be hard pressed to pick ones more likely to elicit attention. Which, it turns out, is just what these colors were designed to do; the figure was fashioned from an insecticide canister. Like blaze orange, the colors scream warning.

The original container was mostly green. Like a snake. On top, there were yellow and blue areas used to highlight especially important information, set out like poison dart frogs in the jungle. Orange-red metal strips, tinged the same bright hues as inedible monarch butterflies, encircle the dancer’s elbows and wrists.

From nature we’ve borrowed the color codes for poison. Toxic animals need to advertise their toxicity to would-be predators. It’s not that helpful if someone needs to eat you to find out that you are poisonous. Wild colors are keep-away signals for hunters of all types.

This sculpture is made by the Dogon people who live in the landlocked country of Mali in west Africa. The insecticide cans are from a malaria eradication project. Mali has one of the highest child mortality rates in the world: nearly one in five children do not make it to their fifth birthdays. From this grim statistic, malaria reaps a significant share.

I admired the sculpture for some time before I realized the source of the material. The figure was covered with small white writing, which at first I saw simply as a background pattern, like a tune you have hummed for days before finally listening to the words.

To make the figure, the insecticide can had been cut, shredded and re-soldered. The important words of warning and caution were now assembled into odd and disturbing fragments of text. “Crawling” and “household” first caught my attention; then “skin, eyes and mucous…and plenty of water; …forcibly open; puncture …light or temperatures above; > 0.09% beta; Particular dangers; DOES NOT CONTAI: -50; then ventilate; Avoid contact with; To be applied in living quarters; Do not eat, drink, or breathe; Cover the food stuffs…” And so on.

I couldn’t tell what insecticide elicited all these warnings. DDT is perhaps the most notorious chemical used to fight the mosquitoes which transmit malaria and other diseases. It was banned in the United States in 1972, ten years after Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, raised widespread concern over the effects of pesticides on birds and wildlife. By thinning the shells of bird’s eggs, DDT pushed the bald eagle almost to the brink of extinction.

Spraying DDT, along with other chemicals, to control mosquitoes is still practiced extensively in many parts of the world. The details of these programs are highly controversial, although many have had stunning success in, at least temporarily, reducing deaths from malaria.

Which pesticides are used, how they are deployed, whether or not they can be used in huge volumes on agricultural crops or in far smaller amounts just to control mosquitoes, how fast the mosquitoes are developing resistance, and whether there are equally effective less toxic alternatives, are all questions debated back and forth between governments, scientists, health workers, and environmental groups.

The sculpture speaks to all these terrible complexities. Pesticides such as DDT, the names of which make many Westerners cringe, are saving lives in the third world. The transport vessels for these live-saving, life-destroying toxins are fuel for the creative spirits of impoverished peoples.

How fitting that the sculpture represents a dancer from a Dogon ceremony in which the dead are lead to their final resting place in the spirit world. The piece is such a striking melding of death and life, poison and art, modern and traditional.

Coming up next, the woman who sold the sculpture tells me the Dogon artists are starting to fashion insecticide cans into angels.

We all know Maine is not like the rest of the world. Elsewhere there are scorching deserts, boot-sucking swamps, frozen tundras, and wild grasslands. Yet it’s difficult to have any perspective on how unique or similar this part of the world is to the rest. It’s even more difficult to have an understanding of the range of habitats, wildlife, and threats facing different regions around the globe.

Where is there abundant freshwater? Are there salt marshes on every coastline? How many different types of birds live in the Middle East? Is deforestation most rapid in the Amazon? Do all the world’s blue-eared gobies live in a bathtub in Newark? (OK, skip that last one.)

The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit organization working worldwide to conserve ecologically important habitats, recently published a book of maps called The Atlas of Global Conservation. These maps pull together the data of hundreds of scientists and institutions to create utterly compelling images of life on earth. (You can explore them on-line at www.nature.org.)

Maps in the Atlas divide the planet into “ecoregions,” or areas in which the underlying habitat and ecology is, or was, relatively similar throughout. These are curious maps because they remind us of what used to exist in places where such habitat has long been crusted over with concrete.

It’s hard to think of Boston or New York City, for example, as being part of eco-anythings, but they are in the great sweep of the Northeastern Coastal Forest ecoregion, which stretches from the mouth of the Penobscot River, across midcoast Maine, and south to New Jersey.

This region has a higher abundance of rivers and wetlands, as well a greater area of lakes and reservoirs than most of the rest of the country, and indeed, more than a good chunk of the rest of the world. In fact, we’ve got about the same amount as the Amazon jungle. It’s no wonder we don’t worry about water, while many other places worry about running out.

The ecoregion of which Northern Maine is a part, the New England-Acadian Forest, is one of the most densely forested areas in the United States, with about three quarters of its land carpeted in trees. Tree-clearing in this region is a modest half a percent per year.

On the Atlas’s maps, places with the highest rates of tree-clearing are shown in dark red while low rates are pale yellow. I expected that deforestation would be occurring most rapidly in the Amazon rain forests.

The Amazon Basin is, surprisingly, yellow as a canary, while by far the largest swath of dark red on the globe cuts across central Canada like a forest fire. Southwest of Hudson Bay and down to the Great Lakes, from the tip of Nova Scotia west to the Rocky Mountains, trees are being chopped on a scale unsurpassed by activity anywhere else on the planet. Although some of this forest may be replanted, the new plantings will differ dramatically in species mix and habitat value from the original forest.

The next largest splotch of code red tree-clearing is, planetarily speaking, in our backyard: the land around the Appalachian Mountains, from Pennsylvania to eastern North Carolina. Interesting.

Downgrade slightly from red to dark orange, and you’ll see most of Russia, which is mostly Boreal forest, engulfed in massive tree cutting. About 20% of the world’s forests are in Russia.

Combining information from several different maps tells other interesting stories. Although the maps show that deforestation in the Amazon is not nearly as rapid as here in the north, they also show that the Amazon rainforest possesses a staggering diversity of species.

While Maine has somewhere between 50 and 120 freshwater fish species; the Amazon has more than eight times as many. Maine has about 200 terrestrial, or land-based bird species, the Amazon, nearly 800. Amazon forests are clearly critical to protecting the diversity of life on earth.

One especially intriguing map shows the world’s most remote places. It depicts, in darkest green, the places it is hardest for people to get into, both in terms of nearby infrastructure such as roads and airports, but also in terms of the sheer difficulty of setting one foot in front of the other through the densest vegetation, most terrible mountains and muddiest swamps.

If you looked to Africa for this heart of the wild, you’d be mistaken. The biggest area is the inland portion of northern South America – including, again, the Amazon Basin.

Most of the island of New Guinea in the South Pacific, a stone’s throw from some of the most populated islands in the world, is largely, mysteriously, dark green. Every time scientists set foot on this island they discover new species by the bucketful. Who would have known?

Another bit of murkiest green sits perched on the edge of the world in far northern Russia, up near the Gulf of Ob and the glaciated, mountainous frozen chunks of the Novaya Zemlya archipelago.

Much of northern Canada is gray, the map color which indicates not enough data has been collected: perhaps a sign of true wilderness?

These maps are powerful tools for conservationists. By looking at a combination of features, such as where certain habitats are located, which are the most threatened, which are the least disturbed, and where there are hotspots of diversity, organizations and governments can far more easily identify how and where to focus conservation efforts. And, the rest of us can get some much-needed perspective and a relaxing armchair vacation.