Sometimes it seems the best of everything is passing away.
When I was young, I spent some of my summers at my grandmother’s house in New Hampshire. I remember walking out her kitchen door in 1959, and looking into the telephone lines running between poles across the street. Three stretches of line, from pole to pole, were covered by resting barn swallows, sitting about five inches apart.
We had a lot of mosquitoes in those days, lots of food for swallows. They were constant pests, but we did not have anything I remember in the way of mosquito-borne illness. We also did not have any ticks in 1959.
I lived with my children in that same house. I remember a day in 1982 when my daughter came through the same kitchen door, excitedly exclaiming, “Come, Pops! Look at all the birds!” One stretch of the same old telephone line was half-covered with resting barn swallows. The other two were bare.
That gave me pause, and I thought about flying insects that the swallows depended on for food. We had nowhere near as many of them as we once had. Their rapid decline may have been a good thing, because it made our lives more pleasant, but it could also be an indicator of a problem.
It was that same summer, in 1982, that we saw our first ticks.
When I left that old house, in 2004, there were no barn swallows left. There were few mosquitoes, compared to earlier times. New species had arrived, however, bringing with them the first cases of mosquito-born illnesses we had not seen here, including the still-rare eastern equine encephalitis and West Nile virus. But there were lots of ticks, of different kinds. Some of them carried Lyme disease, which was becoming common.
More recently, my anecdotal evidence has been supported by science. In 2015, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds published a study indicating that worldwide seabird populations had dropped by 70% over a sixty-year period. The WWF published a study saying overall, vertebrate species had declined 60% in forty years.
In 2017, a study in German wildlife sanctuaries documented a 75% drop in flying insect populations over 35 years. In the same year, I interviewed a New Hampshire state wildlife officer who told me that 80% of moose calves born in that state were killed by ticks each year. Moose and ticks had never shared natural ranges before, so moose had no instinct to groom for them. Dead moose have been found with 70,000 winter ticks on them. A fully-engorged adult female winter tick is about the size of a grape.
We should consider what is causing these changes.
In 1959, the environment was a mess. The Ashuelot River, near my grandmother’s house, often had tufts of soap suds on it, and it smelled like a sewer. It was dead. I remember another place I had lived in Illinois, where we sometimes had trucks drive down residential streets, spraying DDT to reduce the chances that people would get polio from insects. (In those days, they did not know how polio was carried, and they were doing everything imaginable to control it.) I remember a teacher telling a grade-school class about local authorities in some places spraying oil on the surfaces of marshes to control insects. We were destroying the environment as a matter of course.
By 1982, the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act had started to show benefits. There were fish in the Ashuelot River. DDT was no longer destroying wildlife. And ordinary people were starting to pay more attention to the environment. You might guess that the environment would be on a course of improvement. But the change was deceptive.
As a person who voted consistently Republican, I was proud of what conservatives had done for the environment over the years. After all, it was Teddy Roosevelt who invented the idea of a federal wildlife refuge. And Richard Nixon told us in an State of the Union address that we needed to protect the environment immediately, because if we put it off, it would be too late.
I trusted conservatives, and listening to them gave me doubts about climate change. But I had not realized how thoroughly the conservative wing was dominated by people who had a vested interest in undermining scientific inquiry.
In the early 2000s, I was waiting for science I could understand to convince me, one way or the other. I got it in 2003. That year, the American Horticulture Society produced a new plant hardiness (PH) zone map showing that the entire country was warming considerably. Some people said they thought the map was based on blundered analysis. Some conservatives claimed that it was the product of an evil socialist plot. As a gardener, I understood the purpose of hardiness zone maps, and my own observations made science believable. I began to doubt those who denied climate science.
Climate science has become much more incontrovertible with the passing of time, and the hardiness zone maps showing climate changes have been updated with new ones showing greater changes. A paper published online in 2012 by the American Meteorological Society said, “The PH statistic has generally warmed at least one half zone, except for the northern plains, northern Maine, and small parts of the Southwest. A warming of two half zones has occurred over large parts of the central and eastern United States, as well as the Pacific Northwest.”
That means the lowest winter temperatures in some places are now ten degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the were only 25 years ago. An easily understood view of the same set of changes can be seen at the Arbor Day Foundation website. It shows that about half of the United States is in a different hardiness zone in 2015 that it was in 1990. These changes mean agricultural practice has to change.
A few years ago, someone threw a peach pit into shrubbery on the front yard of the house where I live. The tree that sprouted from the peach pit is now bearing fruit. Neighbors have paw-paw trees growing in their yards. But Vermont’s maple sugar industry, and the apple orchards, and the blueberry fields are all suffering. Vermont is fast becoming a place unlike what it has ever been, and it is not an improvement.
The same can probably be said of every place on Earth. If you open your eyes, you can see it for yourself.