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Thursday, November 17, 2016

Resilience: AKA Some Things I've Learned From Coyotes

I've been in the habitat restoration game in one capacity or another for at least ten years now. In that time I have sat through many classes and many conferences. In addition to these conferences having very good snacks, there is an intriguing combination of can-do science talk and a subtle message of the world coming to an end in virtually every way we recognize it as a livable and lovely space. It's like Bob the Builder saying, "Can we build it? Yes we can but does it even matter if everything I build will be under the ocean and/or overtaken by a sea of sand" before eating one hundred tamales and taking a very long nap while still in his overalls.

In these discussions I've noticed an increasing amount of discussion about "resilience." In a rapidly changing world where the very soil on which we depend is cracking and blowing away in year after year of record heat while Nero fiddles... with his cabinet (can you imagine Trump sitting down long enough to actually learn how to play the violin?). Where communities most dependent on living off of the land actively encourage its destruction in order to vote against hijabs, we no longer talk about restoration as the end goal. Business as usual, from an ecosystem standpoint, is often no longer an option. We don't talk as much about communities that are resistant to things like fire and disease, because resistance only goes so far. When resistance breaks down, it is disaster. Now we talk about resilient plant communities.

For example: take your favorite camping spot. It's probably filled with trees. Big, majestic trees that are filled with squirrels that chitter at you constantly before trying to steal your snack foods. We like forests during the summer. They're cool and shady and smell nice. This forest is pretty resistant to change. In your mind it never will because it's been there since you were a child. But this forest represents the past. It developed in a landscape shaped by massive snowpacks and steady rain. Snowpack, we're told, will decrease. Rains will become more sporadic and less predictable, and your forests will burn. Or, because we are not experiencing freezes as deep as we used to, the pine beetles will march on. Where hundreds of years ago it would be replaced by more or less the same thing, it no longer will be.

Restoration biologists look at this and, after quickly (or slowly, in my case) moving through the cycle of grief, say, "Ok, what next?" What next, in this case, is to try to predict these events and design ecosystems that will be resilient. Resilient communities are tuned to disturbance. Instead of major disturbance events being catastrophic, like it can be in those forests, for example, resilient communities thrive on it. We stop looking at what this forest is, and start looking at what it will become.

Lodgepole pines sometimes have cones that are sealed with a waxy resin that can only be opened in extreme heat. Since these trees tend to create a canopy that doesn't allow a lot of light, it doesn't make sense to constantly drop seeds in an environment where they can't grow. So they've adapted to keep those seeds stored until a fire sweeps through. Now that light can get in easily, the cones have opened and dropped their seeds into the nice new fertilized soil. Gambel's oak has a massive root ball called a lignotuber. Burn it, chop it, chew it up. New growth shoots right back out.


So on Sunday I gave a lesson in church to the 12-14 year olds and I gave this same example. It went pretty well, I think. I was talking about how eventually kids grow up to be adults and they need to be resilient, and building that resiliency was adults' responsibility as teachers and parents. It's not enough to just tell kids that they have to avoid trouble, you need to talk about what happens next if trouble finds them. I'm a very good teacher in church.

Then, in a training last night about domestic violence, we talked about parental resilience being one of five key factors highlighted by the Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP) for reducing abuse and neglect. Now, when the same concept comes up in completely different contexts we in the failing blog business perk up and say, "I might have a post here."

Our instructor said sometimes when she speaks with parents, they don't immediately know what resilience means. So she often defines it as "strong, but flexible." When I think of strong, but flexible, I think of the coyote. Coyotes are one of the more hated wildlife species here in the west, and are a common scapegoat for mule deer deaths (among many, many other issues). It is an at least weekly incident where someone tells me they used to be able to see deer everywhere but then we stopped poisoning Ky-Yotes and now there's none. When I ask them where they live and they point to their new neighborhood in the foothills I nod and they don't get it, but that's another story. There is a standing bounty in my state of $50 for a coyote pelt. In the last 100 years, we have poisoned them, hunted them with dogs, killed them in "hunting derbys," and shot them from helicopters.

But coyotes are doing fine. Better than fine, actually. They are flourishing. They live everywhere. In the East, they are hybridizing with the gray wolf to create some kind of super coyote that, I am assured, would have no problem catching the road runner even without the seemingly never-ending catalog of items offered by Acme.
The hybrid, or Canis latrans var., is about 55 pounds heavier than pure coyotes, with longer legs, a larger jaw, smaller ears and a bushier tail. It is part eastern wolf, part western wolf, western coyote and with some dog (large breeds like Doberman Pinschers and German Shepherds), reports The Economist. Coywolves today are on average a quarter wolf and a tenth dog.
Strong, yet flexible. All of the qualities you want in a good longboard, but it can also eat you.

Coyotes, when their numbers get low, have something programmed into their DNA that says, "Fewer coyotes = more food for the rest of us let's get cracking," and then they get cracking. In areas where active coyote suppression takes place, they have litters that are double the size. In Yellowstone, when wolves were completely eliminated from the lower 48 states (honestly we can say 49 states because I don't know how well wolves were doing in Hawaii), coyotes happily took over the role as apex predator. When wolves were reintroduced, coyotes said "listen guys, we're good. We'll mate with you and turn into a super species eventually, but also we can get by just fine hunting with badgers, too."

Maybe they were bummed. I don't speak coyote. But they moved on with their lives, is what I'm saying. I've been to Yellowstone. They're doing fine.

Here's where I talk about a very scary thing that people all over the internet are arguing about. It's this question: White People: What is Your Plan for the Trump Presidency? This question is tough. I put a picture on Instagram wearing a safety pin. Here's why: I was going to go out into the world looking for an NES Classic (see last post), and I wanted people of color to know that I didn't vote for Donald Trump. That's it. Because I imagined that if I were a member of a marginalized community, I would look around me at Wal-Mart or Gamestop or whatever and think to myself, "These people all voted against me," and I would be mostly right.

The safety pins are a national disgrace now, and while I liked the sentiment, if there's one thing I'm going to do when trying to stand up for people who are marginalized in my society it will be to listen to them when they say this doesn't help anyone.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the safety pin wasn't for other people. It was for me. I didn't want someone to look at me in the store and think that I did this. Because I'm a good person. White liberals are so desperate to prove that we are good people and if I'm looking at my facebook feed, we are not handling this thing with resilience. I see a lot of different views on there, but I also see a lot of spoiled sports who are so sad that "we" didn't win. Already they're blaming each other for it. They feel like their voice wasn't heard, and for a lot of them, those who have spent most of their adult life with a Democrat in office, it's the first time they've been on the losing team. Ouch, you poor poor baby liberals.

Apparently what we're doing to be good isn't good enough, no matter what it is. Don't wear a safety pin, volunteer. Don't volunteer, protest. Don't protest, revolt. Resistance!

The discriminated groups? They tell us it has always been this way. While we've been shocked. Shocked! They say "start looking at all the people who believe in these ideas and they are sitting in our classrooms, they are in our courtrooms, and they are pastors of our churches. I feel like Donald Trump is not a big bad wolf. He’s existed for a long time.” If this is the first time we're seeing that we live in a system that is structurally unfair and it breaks us, that's a sign of being tough only as long as the disturbance isn't catastrophic. That is resistance. We need to look to those for whom catastrophe is the norm.

As individuals, people of color and immigrants and LGBTQ+ and Jews and victims of sexual violence and women are very vulnerable and need us to stand up for them, but as a group? They are resilient as heck. They have been dealing with Donald Trumps and his followers for centuries, and they are still here. They know what needs to be done better than all the white thinkpieces on all the websites combined. George Takei knows what persecution looks like. He quotes an old Japanese saying, "Fall seven times. Stand up eight."

That's what resilience looks like. Strong, but flexible. When a resilient forest burns, it already has the seeds of its regrowth at its feet. When hurricanes whip at its branches, it bends all the way to the ground, but then it comes back. It's like me when I ask for your hottest chili, and you give it to me, and after eating a bowl I spit out some teeth and grin and say, "hotter." What I'm saying is that I like spicy food.

Dang son