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Half Earth?

We leave Santa Fe before 4 a.m. to make it to Bosque del Apache for the big show. The temperature is in the 20s by the time we reach the wildlife sanctuary on the Rio Grande south of Albuquerque—but it feels even colder—and birdwatchers are already lined up along a pond just north of the visitors center where thousands of snow geese and sandhill cranes are roosting, squawking, and taking to the air in the faint light of predawn and a waning sliver of moon. As the sun begins to rise, more birds come in, just visible in formation high in the sky. They land on the ever-crowding pond as others take off, the white of the geese and long necks of the cranes standing out against the mountains of the Chupadera wilderness. It was worth the early morning (or still night) drive to see this spectacle—one that predates our own species’ sense of time.

It’s a powerful reminder that this planet is not just ours. In fact, despite our ability to travel beyond it (on the radio on the drive down we heard that the U.S. plans to build a permanent base on that moon dipping below the horizon), we are just a small part of its much larger picture—although we have evolved, almost unnaturally, to the point where we could forever warp its subtle, inexorable beauty.

In his book The Social Conquest of Earth, which I consider required reading for anyone who wants to better understand our place among the species and evolution of this planet, biologist EO Wilson observes: “Humanity today is like a waking dreamer, caught between the fantasies of sleep and the chaos of the real world. The mind seeks but cannot find the precise place and hour. We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology. We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.”

Watch birds in a place like this and those words serve as a reminder of the great responsibility we have to ensure this spectacle continues despite our best efforts to expunge the Earth of anything beyond our own ever-hungry technology.

Sandhill cranes are ancient. The fossil record proves they have flown and found mates for life for at least 2 million years. Our own species is only about 300,000 years old. Stand in the dawn and watch them fly and you glimpse the primordial past—or eternity. And they do feel prehistoric—seemingly awkward, but graceful when they walk or take wing. For me personally, they are special birds too. I first saw a mating pair while I was working for the Forest Service back on the West Fork of Montana’s Madison River. They would fly and call each morning as we went to work building trails, away from any news of the world, and made us feel more connected to—and in wonder of—the mountains around us. These ancient creatures make me feel at peace in the hectic sprawl of our human world and my own being.

Wilson also wrote about the need to share—and the possibility of sharing—this planet with the at least 8.7 million species that inhabit it. He proposed the idea of “Half Earth,” of setting aside 50% of it for them.

That seems like a moral imperative when we actually get out and observe at least some of those species in their world. I suggest that you stop your routine—for at least a little while—and look around.


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