Climate Change

Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction

March 9, 2016

Noted environmental author and Bay Nature contributing writer Mary Ellen Hannibal was moved to write about large-scale efforts to protect the planet after watching conservation scientists weep as they shared their fears that the species they were studying wouldn’t be able to keep up with the rapid pace of environmental change. Out of that experience came The Spine of the Continent, a description of the large-scale effort to promote biodiversity along the chain of mountain ranges from Canada to Mexico. Her next book hones in on a new hope for preserving biodiversity: groups of concerned citizens who faithfully count and study the animals and plants in their local parks, in the wild, and even virtually. Ahead of her March 22nd Wallace Stegner lecture on improving wildlife corridors via citizen science, we caught up with Mary Ellen to discuss the origin of her passion for writing about the “big picture” of conservation.

Bay Nature: Are you a Bay Area Native?

Hannibal:  No, but I have been in the Bay Area since 1987.  I grew up in East Hampton on Long Island, New York.  It is a very beautiful place on the ocean.  When I visited San Francisco, I fell in love with it.  The light here is like the light of East Hampton.  There are a number of painters who have spent a lot of time both here and there, so I’m not the only one to find that.  Surrounded on all sides by water, both San Francisco and East Hampton are places where you can live with nature integrated into your daily life.

What formative experiences led you to become a nature writer?

When you’re a teenager, you’re becoming conscious and you go through a time of inner discovery.  I had these experiences on big wild beaches on Long Island, and taking long hikes.  That’s where I really got my love of nature.  We were outside all the time, winter, spring, summer and fall.

And how did you get into journalism?

I was an English major in college (Smith, 1981).  After college I went to New York, where I worked for magazines.  My first job was at Esquire.  I worked with some excellent writers like Annie Dillard, Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff.  I continued work in the world of magazines as an editor of book reviews and travel editor for the magazine that would become Conde Nast Traveler. 

Eventually I wanted to try living somewhere else.  I had grown up going into Manhattan for “the city”, and I really wanted to try something else.  My husband and I moved to San Francisco and I worked in corporate communications because there weren’t as many opportunities available at magazines out here at that time.  And corporate communications pays better.

Then when my daughter was three, I decided to transition to freelance writing.  My interest in the natural world has steadily deepened since then.

The Spine of the ContinentWhat piqued your interest in conservation biology?

When I was doing research for Evidence of Evolution, which was published in 2009 to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Darwin publishing On the Origin of Species, that was a real deepening point.  I was interviewing scientists at the California Academy of Sciences, and I heard over and over again from then that we were on a path to extinction.  Scientists – sometimes in tears – spoke of the destruction of key natural sites, and the loss of biodiversity.

I really wanted to help these people.  So for my next book, I was looking for a story that would help explain what was happening, but a good story with a hero and a quest.  And I found a great one.  That’s what became The Spine of the Continent.  It’s an introduction to conservation biology and a profile of that field’s founder, Michael Soulé. He’s responsible for articulating one of the major tenets of conservation biology, “trophic cascade”, which refers to the chain of consequences when the top predator is removed from an ecosystem.

Another major idea, which drives all my writing, including what I write for Bay Nature, is connectivity.  One way to describe connectivity is through the “corridor” concept.  We can put our arms around a certain piece of land to protect it, but unless we preserve large, contiguous areas of land, many species will go extinct.

In describing The Spine of the Continent, you refer to scientific effort, social effort and geographical effort.  What do you mean by the latter?

The “spine of the continent” is transnational; it’s the chain of mountains ranges extending from Canada to Mexico. The term “geographical effort” refers to the effort to coordinate work in different parts of the landscape along this spine.  There are forty nonprofits working this concept of connectivity along the spine of the continent.  They meet with each other periodically.  Each knows that its work must connect with the others in order for all of them to succeed.  It does not and cannot stop at a fence along the border between two nations.  We’re looking at geography from the very big picture.  It’s a big project, and it’s not complete.  When I was reporting on it, I felt that it was moving way too slowly.

What is the remedy?

One answer is “citizen science,” which is regular people contributing to scientific research.  I call it “grassroots meets big data.”  My next book, Citizen Science: Searching for Heroes and Hope in the Age of Extinction, describes this. It explains how data can be collected, on cell phones for example, and then analyzed by scientists to make predictions and suggest actions.  This process connects you and me to the natural world, as well as to the outcomes of scientific research.

Citizen science falls under the rubric of post-colonial co-creative research, in which the scientist is not isolated from the subject of study, is no longer an external but intrusive “authority.”  Co-creation challenges notions of what science is, who does it, and how it happens. My upcoming piece in Bay Nature (April-June 2016) about the the recovery of traditional ecological knowledge by the Amah Mutsun tribe is another example of this.

What is your favorite outdoor destination in the Bay Area?

That’s such an impossible question . . . I’d have to say Hawk Hill in the Marin Headlands, near Sausalito.  From there you can see Mt. Tamalpais, Mt. Diablo and Mt. Hamilton.  The built human world looks incidental.  You can get a magnificent view of the natural formation of the bay, and as the hawks fly by there is a sense of being part of their world.

Mary Ellen’s Wallace Stegner lecture “Citizen Science and Creating Better Wildlife Corridors”, hosted by Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST), took place at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts on Tuesday, March 22 at 8 pm.

And don’t miss her article “Rekindling the Old Ways” on the Amah Mutsun tribe and the recovery of traditional ecological knowledge in Bay Nature’s April-June issue! Mary Ellen will be speaking on this topic at a forum entitled “Restoring Our Relations With Mother Earth”, on Thurs., April 14, at the David Brower Center, 2150 Allston Way in Berkeley. This event is sponsored by the Amah Mutsun Land Trust, Sempervirens Fund, and Bay Nature.  For more information and tickets, click here.


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