What’s Happening to the Bees and Butterflies?

Emmet Gowin: Mariposas Nocturnas Index #44, Bolivia, 2011; from ‘Hidden Likeness: Photographer Emmet Gowin at the Morgan,’ a recent exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum. Gowin’s new book, Mariposas Nocturnas: A Study of Diversity and Beauty, collects fifty-one of his moth grids and will be published by Princeton University Press in September 2017.
Emmet and Edith Gowin/Pace-MacGill Gallery
Emmet Gowin: Mariposas Nocturnas Index #44, Bolivia, 2011; from ‘Hidden Likeness: Photographer Emmet Gowin at the Morgan,’ a recent exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum. Gowin’s new book, Mariposas Nocturnas: A Study of Diversity and Beauty, collects fifty-one of his moth grids and will be published by Princeton University Press in September 2017.

Early last May, I sold my old farm and moved about ten miles west. Both places, old and new, belong to what appears to be the same New York landscape: gravel roads, rolling hills, masses of trees—the usual, you might say. But ten miles make more difference than I thought. I live on a glacial drumlin now, not an outcropping of ledge. The soil is heavy with clay, not porous with river rock. There are oaks and ashes and tall black cherry trees instead of beeches and hickories and hemlocks.

Singing in the hedgerows in May were birds I’d never heard before—prairie warblers, for instance, whose song sounds like an upward laddering descant. And fluttering over the fields in June, were those bobolinks? As fall came, I watched a few chimney swifts stuttering and banking in insectivorous flight nearly out of sight overhead.

Most of the birds here are the same ones found at the old farm—the catbird low in the hedgerow, the pileated woodpecker haunting the woods. That is, the species remain the same, but not the individuals. For most of us, a bird’s identity is summed up at the level of species—we see the type as much as the specimen. We clamor endlessly about our own identities and happily attribute individuality to mammals of a certain size—a fox roaming the pasture or a black bear crossing the road at dusk. But the identity of wild birds as individuals is concealed within their identity as members of a species.

I wonder if the concept of “species” doesn’t sometimes get in the way of understanding the effect humans are having on the natural world. After all, a species endures even as the individuals that make it up come and go. But sometimes the word implies that the collective whole—the generality of goldfinches, say—matters more than the individual. Only when a species dwindles to its final numbers do the individuals seem to become, well, individual. Perhaps the only passenger pigeon ever to bear a name was Martha, the very last one.

Finding unfamiliar species at the new farm gave me a momentary sense of avian abundance. But then I remembered that it’s only an illusion.


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