Gavin Van Horn: Shagbark Thoughts

Center for Humans and Nature:

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Small places, small encounters. We start where we are, with what is available to us. An iridescent bird who has learned to seek bread from human hands is not a bad place to begin. Which reminds me of the wise words of writer and lepidopterist Robert Michael Pyle. There’s a moving chapter entitled “The Extinction of Experience” in Pyle’s memoir of childhood exploration, The Thunder Tree. There he notes that when people think of extinction, they often think of rare species—Javan rhinos and Bengal tigers. Animals that are large or furry, or a combination of both, draw the lion’s share of our attention. As important as big, charismatic species are, Pyle sets his sights on something closer to home. He expresses concern over a potentially more devastating loss, “the extinction of experience.” This type of extinction is more subtle, occurring at the scale of the neighborhood, and therefore less appreciated and harder to detect. Rarely is ink wasted on headlines about this type of extinction. One season a copper-colored butterfly flutters by, the next year it is gone, cool concrete substituted for purple coneflower.

These small disappearances could be characterized as lesser losses. After all, in Chicago there are the forest preserves, many miles of lakeshore, innumerable municipal parks. Even if we get to those places only once in a while, the Discovery Channel or Animal Planet or Nat Geo Wild allows the exotic to burst into our living rooms. For Pyle, this way of thinking reflects the slow erosion of intimacy with so-called throwaway landscapes.