Silent Night: A permaculture perspective on global ecosystem collapse
Updated: Jan 5, 2021
The frog pool was square — fifty feet wide and seventy feet long and four feet deep. Lush soft grass grew about its edge and a little ditch brought the water from the river to it and from it little ditches went out to the orchards. There were frogs there all right, thousands of them.
Their voices beat the night, they boomed and barked and croaked and rattled. They sang to the stars, to the waning moon, to the waving grasses. They bellowed love songs and challenges.
John Steinbeck, Cannery Row
I HEAR STEINBECK’S FROGS every night of spring, summer, and fall, and even on warm winter days. The booming of bullfrogs that I remember as a kid is accompanied by various tree frogs, including a species of barking frog. To the unwary, it sounds very much like a small dog in distress. One of my tenants heard it for the first time and was convinced that a puppy had crawled underneath the house. We assured him that if he opened the door to the crawlspace, the animal would find its way out. It’s not that big of a house. But, he was concerned, so he crawled under the house to rescue the “dog”— only to find a small green
frog with an outsized bark. We’re lucky to have so many frogs, not only for amusing episodes like that, but even more so for the warm days of early spring (I’m talking February here). These days, that’s when the pond warms enough that the frogs come out in glorious multitudes to sing their various songs. The world as a whole is not so fortunate. Globally,
amphibian populations have been on the decline for some time—and not only amphibians, but even insects.
Declines in pollinator populations reached the consciousness in the mid-2000s with Colony Collapse Disorder in apiaries. Even before that, a steady stream of reports of declines in various populations from amphibians to monarch butterflies appeared. Then, a profoundly disturbing report (1) in 2017 documented an astonishing 75% decline over 27 years in insect populations in western Europe. What made the report even more notable was its focus on protected areas. These were not cities, suburban areas, or farmlands, but parklands designated as nature protection areas in Germany. In these nature parks, one might naively expect insect populations to remain stable. Malaise traps, which are standard, funnel-shaped traps that intercept flying insects and drop them into 80% alcohol, were used with periodic emptying and measurement of total biomass in the traps from 1989-2016. Analysis of climate-related variables— precipitation, mean temperatures, and wind speed—did not show any correlation with the decline in insect biomass. Similarly, the influence of changes in habitat or landscape were evaluated in terms of changes in plant species surrounding the sites and surface changes evident from aerial photographs, but did not correlate with observed biomass declines. Authors of the paper suggested in-place agricultural intensification, as distinct from expanded farming areas, as a plausible cause. They noted that 94% of sampled locations were in preserves enclosed by agricultural fields. They postulated that the reserves may have served as sources of insects that then migrated out into the ecological death traps of the agricultural zones.
Normally, a flying insect would end its life as the prey of some other animal. Death by pesticide cuts short that yield and severs the link between predator and prey. With three quarters of flying insects gone in 27 years, how many will be left after another 27 years? Imagine the effects of such a reduction in food supply on bats, birds, and dragonflies. At
what point will ecosystems collapse?
"With gorilla gone, will there be hope for man?" from Ishmael by Daniel Quinn
With insects gone, will there be hope for man? (This author.)
Grasshopper nymph on zinnia. “Flowers aren’t just for butterflies and bees. Grasshoppers gotta eat too.”
My freshman year in high school was the year every student had to assemble an insect collection as part of Biology class. A dream assignment for me—I already had a prize-winning 4-H insect collection that had won ribbons at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair & Dairy Show in my hometown, the State Fair in Jackson, and the Mid-South Fair in Memphis—it was a long and tedious, somewhat mysterious undertaking for most of my classmates. I saw opportunity in my classmate’s struggles, raking in $314 in sales of mounted, labeled specimens—this was in 1975 dollars. Sadly, I don’t remember anyone being interested in
learning about the insect world, and our collections were confined to the adults of the species. The grubs, larvae, and nymphs were excluded—the magic of metamorphosis being
the hook that could have drawn out some insect-appreciation in perhaps a few of my classmates. Generally in freshman year, “bugs” were not cool. Needless to say, even people
who learned to identify a few common species didn’t often get the big picture of the relatedness of all things. Images of individuals and mounted specimens in a box obscure the web of relationships that underpins life on the planet.
In fact, I was often surprised at how little most of my classmates knew about the world around them. Most of them seemed to spend their after-school time engaged in competitive sports or watching TV. As for me, I’d been exploring the 23 acres of our small farm and a couple hours radius by bicycle for almost as long as I could ride a bike. Summer days involved packing a lunch and heading out. I’d look for deserted fields, follow fence lines that had hedgerows, and see what I could find. I liked fence lines because if an ornery bull or property owner happened by, I could quickly switch to the other side of the fence. Once,
I caught an owlfly (Ascalaphidae) in a field. They’re weak flyers, so it wasn’t hard to catch. I’d never seen or heard of owlflies before. It was pretty obvious it belonged to the same order as lacewings, but I had to look it up. My guidebook said it was not rare—something like “moderately uncommon” was the term I think. Whether moderately or extremely uncommon, it was a rare and exciting find for me. In all those trips exploring, I ran into somebody only one time—exactly when I was chasing that owlfly into the middle of the pasture. Along came the farmer across the pasture in his pickup to see what the hell I was doing. I told him I was
collecting insects for my biology class, and he said, “take as many as you want!”
This hardworking bee is loaded with pollen and no doubt contemplating a triumphant return to the hive. Bon voyage, happy bee!
Some days, I went down the Natchez Trace Parkway a few miles to Chiwapa Creek for a day of exploring in and along the creek. Chiwapa has a sandy bottom, unlike many other creeks around here that have been dredged down to the hard chalk layer, and some interesting mineral deposits that I later learned were iron-manganese nodules that precipitated long ago out of the shallow sea that covered this region. Rounded by the constant action of sand and running water, many of them resembled bullets or some type of shot, maybe from Civil War days—in my imagination. Once, I stepped onto a sand bar with thousands upon thousands of tiger beetles. When I approached, they took off in a cloud, only to relight a few feet ahead. I’d seen plenty of tiger beetles, but just one at a time and only the iridescent green ones that live under rocks and pieces of wood. These sandbar beetles were a more plain brown. But, their mandibles made up the difference and could deliver a solid bite—perhaps why they’re called “tiger” beetles? The creek runs through bottomlands that are completely given over to soybeans, so all the extra fertilizer runoff plus pesticides and herbicides end up in the creek. This was the case in the 70s as well, and I knew the problems with chemical biocides, having read Silent Spring and being an early subscriber to what was then fairly revolutionary: Rodale’s Organic Gardening & Farming magazine. I probably got my lifetime dose of atrazine wading in Chiwapa Creek.
From an early age, I had this image of the connectedness of things that just seemed obvious to me. All living things shared the same basic biology, so the “safety” of insecticides was relative. All insecticides were really biocides with just somewhat more selectivity for insect pests than for mammals. Imagine my grief when I learned that the “only practical use” for an entomology degree was to work for the pesticide companies! Of course, the conventional wisdom in my family and my 4-H club was wrong, but I’d never heard of E.O. Wilson (2) back then or appreciated just what you could do in any field if you were the best.
There are some major differences in insect, bird, and mammal populations today compared with my childhood. Back then, black swallowtails (Papilio polyxenes) were ultra-common, but tiger swallowtails (P. glaucus) and giant swallowtails (P. cresphontes) were a rare and special sight— maybe 2 or 3 a summer. Nowadays, there are lots of tigers and fewer black swallowtails, with giants still being rare. Why the shift? Does it have something to do with larval host species? Toads are also quite a bit less common today. I’ve seen only two toads in the last five years. I would ascribe it to a global decline in amphibians, except we have tons of frogs, especially green and brown tree frogs, and barking frogs, plus of course bullfrogs on the pond. We rarely saw a frog, and I never heard a barking frog in the 70s. Our property has more tree cover than it did 50 years ago. Does this have something to do with the shift from toads to frogs? Or maybe toads are easier prey for snakes. We have more snakes of various kinds and many lizards, of several species, which were rarities back then. My parents and grandparents hated all snakes and lizards and killed every one they found. Removing this pressure may be why we have more reptiles and fewer toads these days, and changes in the way humans interact with the environment may explain most of the rest, albeit in ways that aren’t immediately clear.
Humans are remarkably adaptable. We evolved in African tropical forests, migrated out into the savanna, and then left our African homeland altogether. Groups of humans entered and adapted to the Arctic, the Sahara, Ice Age Europe, and every other habitable zone on Earth. Adaptability is good, but inherent in the concept is the fact that Homo sapiens isn’t
cognitively tied to any one geography or biome. Taken to its extreme—say, adaptation to urban or suburban life— alienation from life-sustaining processes can result.
Solitary wasp on flowering Lagos spinach (Celosia argentea). This edible Celosia, known as quailgrass or soko in West Africa, performs well as a hot weather green. If allowed to grow tall (7’ or more) and bloom, you’ll be amazed at the bees, wasps, flies, butterflies, and skippers that will play among the flowers, for the gardener’s enjoyment.
Kicking the atrazine habit
Although I can’t find the reference now, I remember reading in the 70s about a study that found atrazine residues in virtually 100% of American males. That seemed pretty shocking to me. When a study reported that children born in 1963 had 50 times higher levels of strontium-90 in their baby teeth than children born in 1950 before atmospheric nuclear testing, President Kennedy was persuaded to sign the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty to end atmospheric testing. Surely this would happen with atrazine, I thought— but it didn’t. Although not formally banned in the EU, it is not used there because of the inability to assure non-contamination of drinking water. Sure, some minor changes happened in the way atrazine was used, and riparian buffer zones came into widespread use, but today some 40 years after I first read about it, atrazine (sold under various brand names) remains the second most used herbicide in the US after glyphosate (Roundup™).
From time to time, reports appear of atrazine’s negative effects. Atrazine is carcinogenic in rats, and studies have suggested links to human cancer in California farm workers. A 2002 study reported that atrazine disrupted normal sexual development of frogs at 30 times lower concentrations than EPA limits. The study immediately became controversial, and the manufacturer of atrazine funded several studies that not surprisingly failed to replicate the findings. Other studies continue to suggest that atrazine is an endocrine disrupter, and one might reasonably expect more pronounced effects on amphibians in near constant contact with water containing runoff from fields where atrazine has been used. Still, nothing really changes, and atrazine is still there being sprayed on corn and other crops around the world on a massive scale. It seems we have a lot of information suggesting problems with it, but atrazine is a big moneymaker for the chemical companies.
It’s the same story with glyphosate. Massive jury-awarded payouts to people claiming cancer from Roundup® have failed to slow glyphosate sales, at least in this part of the USA. It’s sprayed everywhere. Along roadsides and in ditches, it can reduce costly mowing. The power company uses it around power poles, which makes no difference to them if the power pole is in or very close to your garden. I lost muscadines a few years back for my poor planning to situate them underneath the power line in the front yard! This year, part of a plum tree just beginning to fruit significantly for the first year, was damaged, and a whole bed of Maximillian sunflowers was killed. Again, the only crime was being underneath an overhead power line. Believe it or not, some cemeteries have begun to spray alongside tombstones to avoid time-consuming edging. Lots of farmers spray along their fences. Instead of hedgerows, you now see ugly brown lines everywhere there’s a fence. The situation may be different elsewhere, but this is what I see around here. Between making money for the chemical companies and saving time and money for the end users, it seems herbicides like atrazine and glyphosate are here to stay, lymphoma and amphibian losses be damned!
Don’t break it if you can’t fix it
Insect populations crash. Amphibian populations crash. Insectivorous birds disappear. The night becomes quiet, and the day too. Slowly populations ebb, relationships fray, as
ecosystems collapse. What of it? What good is an owlfly?
The Gaia model of planetary systems says life on Earth maintains the planet in a homeostatic balance conducive to life. Earth’s ecosystems collectively maintain global
temperatures, humidity, and oxygen levels within a range where life is possible. Those ecosystems are dying. This is serious business. Rip out the thread called owlfly, and
maybe nothing happens. Strip out a dozen or more species of moths and beetles, and still all looks fine. No problem yet. But at some point, the strength of the fabric gives way, and we’re in deep trouble. The body can function without an appendix, without a gall bladder, but not without a liver or pancreas. Declines in the health of the microbiota and blood vessels lead to systemic problems—homeostasis becomes problematic and health less stable.
“Don’t break what you can’t fix” could be a permaculture principle were it not expressed negatively—“Thou shalt not destroy ecosystems.” But I digress.
Permaculture is all about complexity. Like making a scientific hypothesis, we make an educated guess about which species will do best where and in what relation to each other. We put together this designed ecosystem. The pollinators, the fungi, and the microbial lifeforms all show up, and if the design is a good one, it all “works” and yields result. Ultimately, as anyone who takes a PDC or reads a good introduction to permaculture knows, it’s all about relationships, not individual species. To humankind’s detriment, this focus on complexity and holistic thinking puts us at odds with prevailing global civilization. There, the
focus is maximizing short-term returns, which necessitates externalizing costs as much as possible.
What is to be done?
We can and should advocate and vote for policies that preserve wild lands and address ecosystems collapse. Admittedly, the realm of national and regional policy is out of our hands for most of us. In our profoundly corrupt, pay-to-play system, those with the money call the shots. So what can we do? We can start by creating examples of the changes we’d like to see. We can manage our own spaces in ways that maximize biodiversity. If we have a woodlot, don’t clear-cut it. Evaluate how best to manage it. Depending on the age of the woodland, it might involve some thinning, for example. It might involve re-introduction of understory plants. If we have a field, either put some grazers on it or mow it less frequently. The more specific strategies below come under the broad heading of farmscaping (3), which permaculture design process can enhance to better achieve productive biodiversity—that is, to create a highly productive site that is also highly biodiverse.
Left: Black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) adult on zinnia. Old-fashioned zinnias— this is a mix that is mostly State Fair mixed colors—attract all kinds of pollinators. Right: Caterpillar of the same species on carrot, mid-August. This fellow will pupate soon, emerging as an adult around three weeks later. To encourage more black swallowtails, leave a few carrots or plant Queen Anne’s lace.