Pando Clone and conservation

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.

camp: Pando Clone, Fish Lake National Forest, Utah
context: The Pando Clone is a giant stand of genetically identical aspen trees, making it the largest organism on earth. It’s also declining steeply due to disease and climate change (warmer winters mean that parasitic organisms which used to be killed off survive the winter to prey on the trees). We were divided into two groups—art and science. As part of the art group, I spent half a day wandering around taking pictures of the trees.
Aspen trees are gorgeous, especially now when the leaves are starting to turn. I’m so glad I got to see and photograph that and spend a day relaxing somewhere so beautiful. Is it bad that seeing beauty like this makes me care more about restoration? It’s such a stark contrast with yesterday, where we saw trampled streams and cowpies everywhere. The healthy trees here are beautiful, striking, even worthy of a postage stamp. But sometimes, what’s right ecologically doesn’t look as impressive aesthetically. So many exotic species were introduced because someone thought they would look better. How can we get people to care about more than appearance? How can we fight for the endangered dung beetles and seaweeds of the world when everyone’s focused on polar bears and tigers? I’m biased towards those charismatic megafauna just as much as everyone else, but I’m not even sure about ecological roles. I suspect large mammals generally play fairly key ecological roles, so perhaps our focus on them isn’t entirely misguided. But I don’t know that for a fact. Either way, they need research and money and habitat and PR, so maybe a public concerned about baby polar bears is better than a public indifferent o eubacteria or rare Amazonian lichens. But I want to believe we have more options than that. I want to get people to care about everything and the whole ecosystem, more than the sum of its parts. I want them to care because these things matter, not because they’re beautiful or they have potential for pharmaceutical research. But isn’t any kind of caring better than apathy? I’m not even sure why I care anymore, except a vague notion that my life depends on a planet in balance. I’m starting to think that balance is more subjective than I thought. I see balance in enclosures, but not the whole forest. Balance in the US, but not Brazil. How much balance do we need? How many functioning ecosystems? Is it ok to sacrifice the rest once we get there? In August, I would have shouted, “NO!” Now, I say no quietly, a bit hesitant. So many things I don’t know…

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