Dragonfly Summer

canstockphoto0529698Extreme weather and the loss of natural habitat have made my garden a little lonelier this year. No butterflies. I’ve seen a couple of Cabbage Whites, but usually I see Swallowtails (black and yellow), Painted Ladies, Fritillarys, Monarchs, Skippers, Checkerspots, Sulphurs, and Coppers, as well as a pretty good range of moths.

The monarch population has dropped significantly over the last 18 years, with 2012 being the lowest year ever (a 59% drop in one year). The push for biofuels (aggressive large scale farming in the Midwest) and the use of GMO and herbicide tolerant crops has eliminated huge amounts of milkweed, a plant that Monarch larvae feed on exclusively.  The population of Monarchs may rebound, but when the numbers are low, vulnerability to other factors is high. It wouldn’t take much to decimate the population.

It seems we are headed into a zero sum game. People can argue all they want about climate change and farming practices, but all it takes is a little common sense math – the more resources we gobble up, the fewer types of crops we cultivate, the less biodiversity this planet will have.

At times, I feel despairing that any of us will get the message before it’s too late. I’m not sanctimonious on the subject – this is not about them, the other, those people. It’s about me as well – the resources I casually blow through as a human being. The water, food, gas and electricity I’ve grown up with and take for granted. The footprint I leave and the narrower the path my child will have to walk on in the future.

I’ve read about living off the grid, conserving, trying to live smaller and more efficiently. I’ve adopted some of the practices, but I’m still in denial that my mere existence is doing real damage. I’m a suburban consumer – a predator on a planet whose only real defense is natural disasters, pestilence and disease. Predators are useful in natural population control. When there is nothing left to control, they turn on each other.

When people argue and point fingers about conservation, they seem to be in one of several camps:

  • Ignorance is bliss. There’s enough for me, so why worry?
  • Stop exaggerating. There’s more than enough for everybody (in my house, city, state, country) and we humans are super smart. We’ll solve the problem.
  • The sky is falling! The sky is falling!  And P.S. – humans suck.
  • Overwhelmed by the problem. There’s too many ideas/solutions/choices and I’m just one person, so I’ll just continue living in my paralytic state.

I tend to bounce between the latter two. Torn between time-consuming tasks of kitchen composting, hanging laundry outside to dry or mixing my own household toxic-free cleaners, I’ll take door number 4 – a nap. I’m being facetious, but there’s a reason things are called modern conveniences. People didn’t become ungainly, sedentary putty when they had to spend four hours scrubbing clothes on a washboard. When there’s an easier way, it’s human evolutionary nature to take it. Sometimes we have to push back against our own nature and work a little harder.

The dragonflies are here. Not in tremendous numbers, but enough to notice. They are super predators, effective and efficient, with bottomless appetites. They catch 95% of the prey they pursue. We like them in Minnesota and Canada, because they eat mosquitoes and the aerial shows at dusk are amazing. They also eat beetles, ants, bees, sometimes butterflies and on occasion, other dragonflies.

Dragonflies are marvelous and slightly creepy. In a lot of ways, they’re like humans – adaptable and voracious. Unlike us, though, they are preyed upon by other predators, such as birds and spiders, as well as humans, who gobble up the natural habitat needed for the dragonfly larvae. Survival instinct dictates that we’d always choose to be the dragonfly over the butterfly or a bee, but a world of predators is not sustainable.

Last summer, I didn’t write blog posts for a couple of months, but I think this year, The Green Study will be gettin’ its green on, figuring out how to take more steps towards leaving a smaller footprint. I’m visiting some wildlife and conservation centers over the next month as part of our family vacation. I’ll share those experiences here, while trying to transform knowledge into action.

Because I’d miss the butterflies.

26 Comments on “Dragonfly Summer

  1. You are one of my favorite bloggers – and this topic is near and dear to my heart. I just joined the Xerces Society and I hope to become better informed about the choices I make that either sustain or destroy natural inhabitants of my world. I’ve not seen a lot of butterflies, either – just the white ones, but I do have an enormous gathering of bees every day. If I could become more aware and change some of my habits, so could everyone else. And think of the power in that!

    I saw a nice fat toad in my sister’s yard the other evening and I jumped for joy. I’ll look into getting some Milkweed so that I can increase the butterfly population.

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    • That’s very kind of you to say!

      I’ve always felt a kinship to the natural world, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more observant and interested in learning. I have stacks upon stacks of identification books that I whip out at a moment’s notice to identify insects and birds. I’ve just started learning more about the life cycles of plants.

      The more you begin to understand about life cycles and the delicate balance of an ecosystem, even on a small scale like a backyard, the more significant news of declining populations and man made disasters (oil spills, etc.) become.

      There is power in the individual, but we are so often dissuaded by the sheer magnitude of the problem. But as I have written elsewhere in this blog, I have to believe that our actions can emanate, like ripples in the pond, to make more of a difference than we imagine. Aside from affecting change elsewhere, being conscientious changes us as individuals – that counts as well.

      Milkweed is on my list. We have some, but not as much as in the past. The odd spring here has impacted plants as well as critters.

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  2. I too miss the butterflies, counting only two swallowtails on my lantana this spring was a significant drop from last year. Our area is in the migratory path for the Monarch. The summer’s end is usually celebrated here with a butterfly flutterby event. I wonder if we’ll even see them at all this year. Of course, I cannot prove the reason for this. I suspect the decision to spray heavily for mosquitoes last year in Dallas and surrounding municipalities took its toll on the butterfly population. Very honest post, Michelle.

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    • It really just hit me the other day, as I watched the dragonflies. Where are the butterflies? I think a lot of it this year is the odd weather, but it would obtuse to think that the land being chewed up on a continual basis and the chemicals used to treat it wouldn’t have an effect. It’s a bit of a mournful post, but I am not without hope – just more aware of the tenuous relationships with nature that we have.

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  3. Michelle! This is one of my hot topics. I have not written much on it because I fear it would unleash a book-length blog than no one would read anyway. But – we are SUCH IDIOTS, collectively. Always struggling to feed more, more, more people. And now trying to figure out how we are going to get enough potable water as well.

    We fail to see that we are in a closed system. YES, it is zero-sum, just on a scale too large for our arrogant little chimp brains to acknowledge. I fear that within my lifetime… if I live to my Dad’s old age… I might see humans starting to go the way of the monarchs. Not enough milkweed for them… not enough water/corn/rice/whatever for us.

    There is something very, very wrong when you see headlines like “Can Wood Feed the World?” or promoting 3-D printed food from nutrient powders, or encouraging people to eat more insects, or trying to figure out how to clone disembodied meat. Already – especially in China – there is one food scandal after another with food vendors ranging from mega-corporations down to the street vendor intentionally adulterating their products with melamine, sawdust, formaldehyde, rat meat. Upton Sinclair would have a field day. Meanwhile, the UN reports that roughly a billion people per year, for the last few years, have been chronically malnourished.

    But the big one is water. One out of six people on the planet RIGHT NOW have zero access to potable water. We’re not talking about having to walk four miles with a bucket; we mean that they walk four miles with a bucket, or depend on a water truck, but all they can get is unsafe filth.

    There are more people alive today than there ever have been in the entire history of our species. It is unprecedented, and clearly unsustainable. We are headed for a crash and all of our efforts to save everyone by consuming more, more, more resources will only accelerate that crash.

    My heartless advice to the question of “How to feed the 10 billion?” is: DON’T. If we value the survival of civilization, of a livable and even enjoyable environment – DON’T. Cruel, yes. But we are exactly like deer in a wildlife management area outstripping our food and water supplies. If there is to be any hope of future recovery of the general population, you cannot – MUST NOT – demolish every last seedling in a vain attempt to save all the deer.

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    • It does appear that water will be the next resource war. You’ve made so many good points here, that the comment can stand on its own without me adding fluff to it. I would say that I’d like to get out of the wildlife management system of killing off natural predators and then killing off the overpopulation of prey. We’re the assholes in that scenario – why make all the animals pay the price? It doesn’t seem to be management as it is cleaning up after yet more human mistakes.

      And please, I would love to see more posts on Forming the Thread about these issues – you’re an unflinching, direct and prolific writer. While I don’t always agree with your points of view, I ALWAYS come away with more information and perspective to mull over. I think that’s invaluable.

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    • I’m completely with Lila on this. The more you look at the whole system, the more you realize there is no fix, no solution. Spend all the energy you like “going green” if it makes you feel better. It won’t really matter one bit in the end. The problem is that the entire system is, exactly as Lila says, completely unsustainable.

      There is no precedent in history for the growth of society in the last 500 years or so. There is no system that can support that kind of growth. We’re in what amounts to a positive feedback cycle, and those never end well.

      It’s water, it’s fossil fuel (which is necessary for plastics and agriculture), it’s carbon and methane, it’s deadly viruses, it’s limited elements necessary for civilization (did you know we’re running out of helium?), it’s commercial food creation and preparation and distribution, it’s a crumbling infrastructure of highways and electric grids, it’s an almost fully corrupt government suckling at Big Money’s teat, it’s a populace mired in ancient religious bullshit and ignorance, it’s a defective education system, it’s the stultifying opium of video games and reality shows, it’s greed and ignorance and foolishness and selfishness and pettiness.

      It’s us.

      We’ve created a system that has to crash and burn. We’re beyond solutions; this system isn’t fixable without completely tearing it down and rebuilding it.

      The sad truth about our future is that this doesn’t get better without billions dying. It’s all but inevitable.

      Or someone figures out a way to make us, as a species, grow up and start demonstrating our worthiness to survive.

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  4. Like everything else, if we look at everything that needs to be done, we will do nothing. But there are small changes we can make, one at a time, that will make a difference. Make one change and get used to it, then make another. Before you know it, you will have changed a lot. 🙂

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    • Absolutely, Ruth. It’s hard to balance the writing of issues by pointing out all that is wrong without saying but you can do this… I hope to follow my wringing of hands with manageable ideas for myself, starting from where I’m at. One step at a time…

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  5. If you’re of an activist bent, pick the one cause that appeals to you most and get involved.
    (Too many causes can get overwhelming.)
    If not, do what you can to live more harmoniously – use recycled goods, cut down on water/electric use, etc.

    If none of those, than take heart – after humans screw it all up and go away, the planet will heal eventually and start all over again.
    Maybe with squirrels next time…

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    • I think that’s the challenge – being an activist from where you’re at. For introverts like me, home must be where everything starts.

      The squirrels – or a monster asteroid will take us out. End of problem.

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  6. I’m with you in those last 2 camps. I was just reading about how millions of bees are dying, and it’s so terrifying and overwhelming. No one seems to appreciate how fragile our ecosystem is or what big boots we’re all wearing as we stomp all over it. We toss around statements like “if all the bees in the world died, we’d be wiped out in 5 years” and go “Oh, wow, that’s awful” and move on.

    Looking forward to your further posts! My house has been looking into urban agriculture and sustainability too. Thanks for the reminder to make it a priority.

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  7. It’s amazing how poverty makes a better eco-neighbor. You use less, wear everything out, repurpose, drive less and keep all footprints small. I’m not complaining. I have access to clean water, healthy food and lots of community support–unlike half the world.

    I’m of Color of Lila’s camp–the Earth will eventually shrug us off and start over.

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    • Ever since the advent of the dollar store and other cheap products, poverty seems not to be a barrier to acquiring piles of junk. I’m at a different stage in life, living below my means, but also with an acute sense of impermanence – now just trying to change my consumerist mentality to match my emerging sense of eco-responsibility.

      If I didn’t have a child, maybe I’d be more nihilistic about it all, but I need to do what I can.

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  8. Beautifully written! I feel the same way as you in so many ways.

    I used to have many reference books on subjects that interested me, but they have gathered dust. Having chronic fatigue makes life challenging in several ways, one of which is cooking in bulk to freeze food (cutting back on packaging), and efforts to recycle are difficult as well, esp., living outside city limits without recycling service.

    I wish I could either live on a sustainable farm with other people or move closer to everything to cut back on fuel consumption.

    Thanks for sharing your positive view about being able to make changes in the world through an individual effort to do what we can to lessen our footprints on the planet.

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    • Thank you for reading and commenting! I like the idea of starting wherever you’re at. Everybody’s circumstances, means and abilities are different so there is no one-size-fits all for making positive eco-changes. There’s a lot of great ideas out there and it can be overwhelming at times, but if we can each just pick up a few new habits – can you imagine the collective impact? I know that I have miles to go, but as the saying goes, every journey starts with one step. Good luck with yours!

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  9. I’m watching my consumption as well. I put in energy saving lightbulbs, and turn off ones not being used. I’m eating less, not everything on the plate just because it’s there. I’m recycling too. I have windup flashlights and lamps, no batteries needed. I “want” an electric car, but I don’t think I’ll afford one for years.

    I’m doing what I can. Because I love dragonflies too.

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  10. I love dragonflies! They’re one of my signature creatures.

    Once, renting a houseboat up on Vermillion (highly recommended!), we saw a cloud of thousands of them feeding in the evening mosquitoes.

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  11. I am awash in butterflies – but that’s typical for July here. Living off well water and in a place where water was carried until the 1980s makes me think about water differently. I’m pretty careful with it. In the woods composting is easy, I just wish that consumer goods weren’t packaged in so much plastic – what can you do? Burn it or send it to the land-fill – neither good options. I think that unlike our parents we are at least aware of the issues and can make steps to reduce waste.

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  12. In my neighborhood, which is at the edge of a saltwater marsh, we’ve noticed that there are hardly any fireflies this summer! This was supposed to be the year of the 17-year cicadas, but I didn’t see ANY in my area, and I didn’t see much about them on the news.

    But I must stand up and speak out strongly against the nihilistic and inhuman suggestion that the only answer is to purposely allow millions of people to die, rather than try to feed them. Or that our present society and systems are so useless that the solution is to destroy everything and start over. Please, nihilism is wrong, wrong, wrong.

    The challenges we face are daunting. To get a better perspective, I recommend “The Future,” by Al Gore. And remember, no one can predict the future, for good or ill, least of all statisticians. If you doubt that, read “The Black Swan,” by Nicholas Nassim Taleb.

    Personally, I’ve been living in a 400+ square-foot one-room apt for five years, and will soon move into a 318 square-foot apt. I don’t kid myself that I’m saving a whole lot of resources, since I continue to drive a car. But our addiction to spacious, single-family houses here in the U.S. is extremely wasteful.

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    • Thanks, John for the book recommendations. I tend to shy away from nihilistic views as well. When people start talking that way, I wonder how they will decide who should be born and who should die. And that view assumes human powerlessness to change. I don’t think that I could live comfortably with the idea that we have no control over the quality of life on earth.

      I can’t get on a high horse about property ownership, since I do live in a small house with a yard in a suburban neighborhood. I have seen these monstrous homes go up and really can’t comprehend why a family would need something like that or why people seem to have no shame about the huge footprint they’re living in. Once we start pointing fingers, though, there is no end to the hypocrisies that could be pointed out.

      All we can do is continue to scale back, be thoughtful about our choices and support education in this country so that we have people with big ideas and solid solutions for preserving life on this planet.

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      • Just out of curiosity, which type of nihilism are you referring to, and exactly why is it bad?

        I wanted to be clear that I’m not advocating anything deliberate, and that’s for two reasons.

        Firstly, I believe catastrophic collapse of the system is inevitable no matter what we do. The system we’ve thoughtlessly, stupidly created over the decades is utterly unsustainable. Millions are going to die no matter what we do.

        Secondly, I’ve come to believe the system is unfixable because it’s fundamentally untenable. Serious people who care keep wanting to fix parts of it, apply patches and bandages, try to shore up the system. I think that’s a pointless waste of energy. Try to plug all the holes you like, but the dike is going to burst and then all that hole plugging will have been a waste.

        It will require a core change in how we operate. I don’t know if it’s possible to “get there from here,” which is why I fear the inevitable crash. But the change I think we so badly need is to stamp out stupid. We got here by being stupid. Getting out of this mess requires not being stupid anymore.

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        • I do not share your world view, because to do so assumes more knowledge than I possess. Whatever the future holds, I’d rather be one of the stupid ones trying to pointlessly patch the system, than fiddling while Rome burns. To be fair, Nero didn’t actually do that – he returned to the city, used his own funds for a relief effort and opened his palaces to those rendered homeless. Had he known that the Roman Empire would fall a mere 400 years later, perhaps he would have fiddled instead (although it was a lyre, since fiddles didn’t exist).

          The nihilism I’m addressing is what I think of as the lazy person’s nihilism – rationale to do nothing. While my actions may not put a dent in the oft-predicted apocalypse, it does impact the quality of my existence and character and of those around me. To say we’re stupid and the system is irreparable suggests a hopelessness that I choose not to embrace. And if you’re right? That would give a whole new meaning to Pyrrhic victory.

          At the very least, answering your comment reminded me that I wanted to re-read some Roman history texts. Plutarch, here I come…

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        • I don’t think it takes prescience to understand that systems based on obsessive growth cannot survive indefinitely or that a fragile system is prone to catastrophic failure (think: “house of cards”). I think it is less predicting the future than understanding the implications of the present.

          I hope I haven’t been unclear. I am not in any way advocating inaction! That would be foolish. I am saying we need very serious action, major changes in how we approach life. In particular, we need to start revering the one thing that sets us apart from the animals: our intelligence.

          Does what I’ll call the “small stuff” help? Of course it does. Some of it helps a lot, at least in the near term. But without understanding that we need to make fundamental changes in the system itself, it’s all just a holding action. You’ll be forever plugging holes in the dike. Build a better dike and you can stop plugging holes.

          To say we’ve been stupid and are stupid and that the current system is fundamentally flawed isn’t hopeless at all. It’s a vision of how we got in this mess in the first place and our only hope of getting out of it.

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