To my nieces and nephews, and all others who follow in my footsteps,
Six years ago now I clambered along cliffs in the Pyrenees, along the craggy and outwardly inhospitable Spanish side of the range. Even in the heat of high summer, the mountains remained a retreat; snow shimmered on distant peaks while birds circled and wheeled above– particular vultures that I’d come to see, restricted always to mountain ranges but now only present in any number here.
The prior year I had been on a paleontological dig in even craggier Wyoming, at a site fifty million years gone. It was similarly elevated, though, as the site itself– an Eocene waterway– was well above where the regularly traveled ground had receded to in the millions of years hence. The lot of us, on one of our breaks, took time to drive out to some spot of protected land where, even in late July, the snow had yet to melt fully. We had snowball fights, bought a couple sleds, and careened down a small but appreciable snow cover. In summer the area experiences desert heat; in the winter, the roads are impassable for the snow. If you told me that once there were glaciers up there, I’d believe you.
Not so now, though. I’ve already spent some years watching things slip ever further toward some theoretical precipice. I look to those vultures, now; around the world, as temperatures rise, montane species of all sorts– flora and fauna alike– drift ever upward. The vultures may not care for the particulars of elevation inherently, but the same may not be said for that upon which they feed. It’s been pointed out a good few times now that there is a very finite amount of mountain up which any given thing can go, and some species cannot persist past a certain point upon them anyway. Everything dovetails and, in turn, cascades. That’s the issue with climate change; sooner or later, some facet of it hunts you down.
I’m not so much an activist, I’d say, as I am a scientist first and foremost. However, the reality is that to study the environment in which we live is to appreciate and so hold concern for it. To learn about it, and communicate those findings and the risk detailed therein to something ineffably precious, is not necessarily the activism that makes change in systems but may well be the activism that makes the change in the people that then uproot those systems. I think that’s where my role lies; I do not know that I have the wherewithal to be the latter person, but I’ve long tried to be the former to whoever I can. In all regards, science communication has always been direly important, but perhaps now more than ever.
What I remember perhaps most of all from that Eocene site is bringing up a particular slab bearing the fossilized remains of a plant; another commented that there was, in the alley behind where he lived, that very variety of plant. This may be the idealist in me speaking, but– I want to believe that if all goes well, whether we are here to see it or not– that another fifty million years hence, some future paleontologist or similar could unearth the lithified remains of some modern day plant of ours and joke that they still lived with much the same.