24 December 2008

Peace and respite

I'm off for a brief visit to the land of my birth, south of the Equator. Hope to see you all again in 2009.

Image by TahoeSunsets.

18 December 2008

Fallen giants of Easter Island

Buried in lake sediments on Easter Island are fossil pollen grains. These pollen grains indicate that a now-extinct species of palm tree once grew there. All suggestions as to what it might have looked like are inferred from the similarity of its pollen to that of the giant Chilean wine palm, Jubaea chilensis. The Easter Island palm disappears from the pollen record around the year 1650. Some say its demise is inextricably linked to that of Rapanui, the ancient Easter Island society...

The extinct palm has been named Paschalococos disperta. Some archaeologists have suggested that the palm would have proved most useful to the ancient Easter Islanders. Could they have felled the trees and used their trunks as rollers to help transport those large moai stone statues from the quarry? Perhaps they used the hollowed out trunks as canoes to get to far-off fishing waters. This idea sounds rather romantic, but they probably used reed ships made of totora bulrushes, not hollow palm trunks. It's quite likely that trees were cut down to get at the edible heart of palm... And so the speculation continues. The bottom line is that we don't know exactly why the palms of Easter Island were annihilated. All we know is that a day must have dawned when someone, for whatever reason, decided to cut down the last tree.

With the island completely deforested, societal collapse seemed inevitable. The lack of trees led to severe soil erosion, still apparent to this day. Other species of animals and plants declined, including the toromiro tree, which was saved from extinction when Thor Heyerdahl collected viable seed on his expedition to the island in the mid-20th century. The toromiro was subsequently entered into a breeding program at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. If only Paschalococos had been that fortunate. Even modern biotechnology will not resurrect this species - the fossil pollen from the lake beds and empty coconut shells found in caves yielded no DNA whatsoever.

Now more than ever, it is clear that our survival is tied to that of our environment. No, not just survival. Our very essence. Everything that defines culture - food, shelter, clothing, medicine, stories, fears, songs, beliefs, temples, tools, traditions, games, dreams - is shaped and nurtured by the plants and animals and microbes among us. Satellites watch Madagascar bleed red earth into the ocean now. Survey ships document tonnes of plastic garbage collecting in the gyres of the North Pacific. The IUCN keeps adding new species to the Red List. Easter Island was a prediction of what happens when biodiversity is lost. Or perhaps not a prediction. A warning - we should know better now. We finally have the tools to manage a whole planet. Collapse is not inevitable.

Respect for nature is respect for human life. 

Photo credits: moai heads by exploraChilean wine palm by badthings; single moai by Jean Delard de Rigoulières.