“We Really Need to Come Home.” A Conversation with Dr. Bruce Beehler
Michael Jenkins, Forest Trends
Bruce M. Beehler, Ornithologist and Research Associate at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History
Bruce and I first met in 1991 in the highlands of Papua New Guinea when we were looking for birds of paradise. Recently, he has been writing about how biodiversity is appearing in our lives during the COVID-19 pandemic and what that really means.
Bruce, what I would like to talk about today is the idea of resilience and biodiversity. The piece you wrote for the Washington Post was perfect, because I think many of us have been having similar conversations with people about wildlife sightings during the pandemic. “I’m seeing all this wildlife that I’ve never seen before.”
You took a trip recently to track migrating birds. Could you share a little about that trip and what it left you with in terms of the bigger picture for biodiversity?
I went the whole length of the Mississippi River, following birds during spring. I started in eastern Texas and southern Louisiana and I followed the river to its headwaters, and then continued northward into Ontario as far as I could drive.
What I saw was something fantastic. Hundreds and hundreds of green spaces, beautiful protected areas – some local, some county, some state, some federal. I camped in all these places. I saw bears and moose and wolves. I saw indigenous people living in these places. I saw local people who were fishing and bird watching and reveling in nature. It was really uplifting to see.
Given a chance, biodiversity can be quite resilient. It can bounce back. What we’re seeing recently in our backyards is a signal from nature about resilience, that we need to be paying attention to.
At Forest Trends, we’ve always focused on ecosystem services and functions and encouraged others to think of them as fundamental to all life, including us, rather than thinking of nature as separate from us, or something we find only in protected areas.
At our ten-year anniversary celebration at Forest Trends, Al Gore came to speak, and we were able to talk for a little while.
I was describing our work to Al Gore, and he says, “Climate is the envelope of all of this.” And it really struck me because I had always thought of climate as an ecosystem function. I’ve been thinking about that analogy a lot lately. If climate is the envelope, biodiversity is the letter in the envelope. And if you follow my thinking there, what would that letter say?
At the moment, the letter would say “Oh my gosh, ouch! The envelope is on fire!”
What small but practical things would you advise people to do for nature and biodiversity from home right now as they shelter in place with their families?
People can start in their back yards, making them more wildlife friendly. It doesn’t take a lot to achieve this. They can volunteer at a nearby park. Or do like you do, Michael, and plant native tree species in openings.
This kind of physical work produces a lot of joy. When people get their hands on the earth and are doing this, they will fall in love with their work and what they see.
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