Wanna Take it Outside?

Paul Simon, of all people, turned me on to it, Pulitzer Prize winner Edward O. Wilson’s remarkable assessment of life on our planet, “Half-Earth.” Writing in The New York Times, Simon rates the book “compulsory reading” for all who care about “our children, our children’s children and all of the species alive today.” And, so, I visited the LeRoy Collins Library and checked it out.

Wilson begins by offering his definition of man — “storyteller, mythmaker and destroyer of the living world.” Humans, he writes, arrived with the capacity to “survive and evolve forever” and with the ability to “render the biosphere eternal also.” But arrogance, selfishness and short-sightedness get in the way.

Wilson is a scientist who has devoted his professional career to the study of taxonomy, biodiversity and, particularly, ants. The Biophilia Center near Freeport in Walton County is named after him. (“Biophilia” is a word of Wilson’s invention meaning a love for all living things.) His definition of man brings to mind another such definition written by the communication theorist Kenneth Burke. Dr. Stan Lindsey, who qualifies as a Burkean scholar, was my advisor at FSU when I was in graduate school and introduced me to Burke, who defined man as “the symbol-using (and abusing) animal, inventor of the negative, separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making, goaded by the spirit of hierarchy and rotten with (the pursuit of) perfection.”

We have, then, two men from decidedly different disciplines, both of whom view humans as self-serving competitors motivated to stay ahead of the Joneses.

“Half-Earth” derives from Wilson’s calculation that if Earth is to survive substantially as we know it, fully half the planet must strategically be set aside and left alone so that its biological underpinnings are adequately preserved and the planet’s “sixth extinction” averted. The fifth, it is said, resulted 65 million years ago when a large meteor slammed into what is known today as the Yucatan Peninsula.

Many dispute Wilson’s view, but general agreement is possible regarding his assertion that the planet has entered upon a new epoch dominated by the influence of humans. Wilson and others call that epoch the Anthropocene. People who subscribe to an Anthropocene world view believe that species other than man should be judged based on their usefulness to man. I know such anthropocentrists; I could bang on the wall and hail one right now.

Like Wilson, I fall into the biofilia camp. Like him, I am impressed by how little humankind knows about the biosphere in which we live. Wilson estimates that of all the species on Earth, only two-thirds have been cataloged. He reports that more than 500 species of bacteria live in just the mouth and esophagus of human beings and serve there to protect us from harmful, parasitic bacteria. Quite apart from religious consideration, it is demonstrably true that the invisible rule the visible.

Like Wilson and Paul Simon, I cling stubbornly to an optimistic outlook and believe that even as we are given as humans to competition, we are capable, too, of altruism sufficient to arrest what the ant expert calls the “ongoing mass extinction of species.”
Heavy stuff, enough to drive me to poetry. Here, then, is a delightful poem titled “Today” and written by Frank O’Hara in 1950 when the aftershocks of World War II still reverberated. Nonetheless, O’Hara found enduring sources of joy.

Oh! kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas!
You really are beautiful! Pearls,
harmonicas, jujubes, aspirins! All
the stuff they’ve always talked about
still makes a poem a surprise!
These things are with us every day,
even on beachheads and biers. They
do have meaning. They’re strong as rocks.

I invite you to replace the seven nouns in the first three lines of the poem with seven favorite things of your own. If the majority of them are living things, count yourself a biophiliac and rejoice with me in that familiar Paul Simon lyric …
I’d rather feel the earth beneath my feet/
Yes I would/
If I only could/
I surely would.

Take it outside,
Steve Bornhoft

Pigtoes, Catspaws: Rest in Peace

  • Coosa elktoe
  • Sugarspoon
  • Angled riffleshell
  • Ohio riffleshell
  • Tennessee riffleshell
  • Leafshell
  • Yellow blossom
  • Narrow catspaw
  • Forkshell
  • Southern acornshell
  • Rough combshell
  • Cumberland leafshell
  • Apalachicola ebonyshell
  • Lined pocketbook
  • Haddleton lamp
  • Black clubshell
  • Kusha pigtoe
  • Coosa pigtoe
  • Stirrup shell

All of the above species — former inhabitants of watersheds in the American South — are gone, departed before all but a few people knew them, doomed to extinction by the construction of dams. They were filterers of water. Producers of mother of pearl. Vital links in aquatic ecosystems, according to Edward O. Wilson. Underappreciated. And so it goes. The ivory-billed woodpecker is as familiar as Woody Woodpecker. But invertebrates vanish without fanfare.
Can you name the group to which the species listed above belonged?

Categories: Director’s Column, Opinion