The Sixth Extinction in my backyard {yarn along}

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I finished reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History over the weekend. I also basically neglected my knitting & have been doing so for a couple weeks. I started a baby vest for another childhood friend’s baby (due in June) using a skein of Camilla’s baby-soft Merino in Toasted Almond, but haven’t gotten much further into the pattern than the back cast-on plus a few rows. I’ve got time.

The Sixth Extinction is such an exceptional book I truly do not know how to properly write a review, a review worthy of the book. Kolbert is a gifted writer. She has the ability to make very complicated scientific principles, theories, & concepts completely understandable to the general public & she does so with beauty.  Her writing is beautiful.  The book was exciting, interesting, informative, and also just plain sad.  It is a long-view of extinction in a mere thirteen chapters, each chapter focusing mostly on a particular species or group (either a species currently battling the forces of extinction or one from the past).  The book explores Panamanian golden frogs, Mastodons, the Great Auk, ammonites, graptolites, coral reefs, ocean acidification, invasive species, the Sumatran Rhino, Neanderthals, Hawaiian crows, while also giving extensive background on the five mass extinctions that have already taken place on Earth.

My main take-away from the book is that human beings are special.  We are so very special.  And this Earth upon which we have trod for thousands of years is our responsibility.  Being the curious, inventive, beautiful beings that we are, we have placed ourselves at the summit of Earth’s fate, whether we like it or not.  We’ve rearranged the Earth in a blindingly quick amount of time.  The diversity of our world is astounding & the number of species that have either disappeared forever or are on the brink gives you whiplash.

The final chapter addresses the Hawaiian crow.  I think I did shed a tear or two, but I’m probably more emotionally-fragile than the average person.  I can cry easily.  But I also feel deeply.  Kolbert writes, “Right now, in the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed.  No other creature has ever managed this, and it will, unfortunately, be our most enduring legacy.”  Whether you agree or not with Kolbert (& most scientists) that we are the puppetmasters in a “sixth extinction” or “Holocene extinction” or “Anthropocene extinction,” it is a mass extinction nonetheless.  An extinction that is riding across all life forms–no group is being spared.

I did a little birding from my window on Tuesday while still contemplating the book.  There is a group of Mourning Doves that lives in our Pileated Woods & they often visit our feeders.  One dove lingered at the feeder far longer than her dule.  Males & females look the same, but I called this particular dove Martha in my head, probably after the last Passenger Pigeon to die in captivity.  Coralee & I recently presented an activity at our local nature center about Martha & it’s still on my mind, I guess.

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I never realized that Mourning Doves have beautiful pink-red feet & blue eye shadow! 😉  Such a pretty bird.  Common throughout its range & one of the most widely-hunted birds in North America.  I’ve never paid this species much thought.  My family likes to add birds to our “Life Lists” and “Big Year Lists” & of course that’s always exciting, but we also try to appreciate  the birds that inhabit our woods & yard day-in & day-out.

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Male House Sparrow second from left, facing camera.

The Sixth Extinction got me thinking about what more than likely lies ahead for our backyards. If we stay on our present track, the Earth’s diversity will eventually homogenize & contain just under 50% of our present bird species (Kolbert 213). So invasive species are here to stay & I need to rethink my disgust for the House Sparrow! The House Sparrow was introduced to the U.S. in the mid-1800s. It’s now found everywhere. Diversity needs to be appreciated for diversity sake…& soon…I don’t want my great-grandchildren to only see House Sparrows, but I also recognize House Sparrows are part of the web of diversity as well. And many of the birds, & grasses, & flowers, & animals we appreciate here in Iowa as being “native” are more than likely a nuisance somewhere else–an invasive species. And that’s on us. These animals didn’t just up & move all on their own. Such a complicated book, but one I feel is important to us as humans.  I don’t expect everyone to latch on to the idea of a sixth extinction, but extinction facts are extinction facts.  Kolbert doesn’t fudge the numbers.

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I felt like Martha was looking right at me…I know she wasn’t, but still…

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Then she fluffed up against the cold & seemed to take a nap.
A nap constantly interrupted by the House Sparrows flitting in the snow all around her.

And I, being the curious species that I am, sat appreciating this little bird.

Joining in with Ginny.

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12 thoughts on “The Sixth Extinction in my backyard {yarn along}

  1. That sounds like fantastic book Ruby- right up my alley- going to library today actually 🙂 I too tend to be rather “emotionally fragile” especially when it comes to the earth and animals.. hence I will definitely buck up and dive in to this book. I love mourning doves- there lovely little coo- so sweet and beautiful, so sweet she is bedding down for a little winter nap. So neat that you can take pictures with your scope. Enjoy snowy winter wonderland- we are dry as bones out here…sniff.
    xo

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    • Mourning doves have a lovely call, I agree! The little group that lives in our woods is quickly becoming part of our family. We’ve named three so far–Martha, George, & Lafayette. (Coralee is studying the Revolutionary War & her focus this week was on George Washington and one of his French generals, Lafayette…boy, we’re such geeks around here!) I think you will very much enjoy this book, Camilla. I’ll be eager to know what you think when you finish! And I cannot believe you have no snow! Boo! Montana in February should mean snow…

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    • I do very much enjoy our feathery visitors just beyond the window, but I wonder sometimes if by feeding through the winter we’re somehow messing with the natural order of things? My parents have a cabin in northern WI & would have the same problem as you with black bears if they kept a feeder stocked. Once we buried bacon grease in the woods a fair distance from the cabin and within 24hrs a bear found it–never did that again! Totally understand your predicament. I hope you’re able to venture out to see the birds on the wing. Thanks for stopping by my blog. 🙂

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  2. When I visit, I am always (I really mean “always”) struck by how delightful your blog is. Today, I am aware of the impact that this writer and her book had on you. It clearly connected with some good stuff in your hear and soul, and this reflects your deep love / respect for our wildlife, our resources. Peace.

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  3. Thanks for posting up about your book. I recently read Species Seekers which was an excellent compilation of the men and women’s stories who “found” and named species in the Victorian Era. It chronicled the dangers, fighting, and heros who discovered for fun, fame, or love. It was so interesting how people volunteered to sit in mosquito filled rooms to see if they’d contract Malaria! Your book looks like one I’d really enjoy and Species Seekers might be something you’d like.

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    • Thank you for the book rec! I googled Species Seekers & am most definitely interested…promptly reserved it at the library. I think the second or third chapter in The Sixth Extinction is similar to Species Seekers & I thoroughly enjoyed reading that small slice of modern natural history’s origins so a full book on the subject seems right up my alley. Very thoughtful of you to comment. 🙂

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      • You’ll love it. I forgot to mention there was a short story about how one naturalist saved some backyard birds, telling people they are poisonous (if I remember correctly). Apparently, the little birds were common food for everyone up to this point. I’m headed to the book store tomorrow, hoping to find your title too.

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  4. The book sounds really interesting, i think I’ll add it to my list. Your birds are interesting too…i guess the sparrows came from over here in the UK. We now have flocks of parakeets alongside them.

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