The big picture is a puzzle here and now

The big picture is hard to see. Modern means can help but we, as human beings, are still constrained by the time and place in which we live.

Take, for instance, the way our readers a century ago may have learned about what was called The Great War, before we started numbering them and called it World War I.

We go back in time each week, perusing the Enterprise news from 100 years ago. The late Washington Post publisher Philip Graham famously spoke of journalists’ “inescapably impossible task of providing every week a first rough draft of history that will never really be completed about a world we can never really understand.”

So this “first rough draft” of the history of The Great War began emerging in tiny bits and pieces in Altamont. On Nov. 20, 1914, we read of a plea from Julia Viet who heads the French department at the Albany Academy for Girls to offer relief for those suffering in France and Belgium.

“The crops have not been gathered, the devastation brought by war is unspeakable,” she writes, “and many are dependents of our soldiers now in need of support. Millions of people in Belgium and France are homeless, without clothes, without food, and families are scattered in all directions.”

She also wrote, “Winter is coming. The Red Cross will care for those in the field, but the old men, the women and children are left without the necessaries of life; and these the government cannot supply.”

Was it hard for the Altamont readers to look away? Were they moved to contribute?

Or could they quickly glance instead at the nearby notice on the annual “Jelly Day,” or focus on the Altamont bride “prettily gowned in white Duchess satin, trimmed with Chantilly lace” and carrying a shower bouquet of pink roses? Miss Margaret Manchester became Mrs. E.H. Dougherty and wore a blue travel suit with a hat to match on her honeymoon.

After all, the war was half a world away. Or was it?

The war came home in the Dec. 18, 1914 Enterprise, arriving in villagers’ hands just before Christmas. “News has been received in this country by Miss Dulcerer Chandler of Albany and Mrs. H.A. Knapp of Delmar of the death of their brother, Second Lieutenant Clive Chandler, of the first Wiltshire regiment, British army. He was slain in the battle along the Yser canal in France on Nov. 14.”

We now know that battle as the last stand, the last chance that Belgium had to save a sliver of itself from the relentless advancing German troops that had taken over the vast majority of the country. Over two months of bloody combat, the thrust of victory went back and forth until at last Belgium held its own, making a hero of its king, Albert, and preserving national pride.

A century later, we can look back and see the conflagration of alliances; we know about the nine million dead soldiers and seven million dead civilians; we know how the maps of Europe and parts of Asia were redrawn; and we know how a short two decades later a humiliated Germany followed Nazism to try again.

What are the pieces now that color our pages but won’t form a whole picture until decades hence?

Last month, a snowy owl landed on our front page. The picture was taken by Fran Drzymala in the backyard of her Dunnsville Road home in Altamont. Drzymala had never seen a snowy owl before, which is understandable since its breeding grounds are far, far north in the Arctic.

Some years, the owls, the largest in North America, fly thousands of miles to the south, which ornithologists call irruptions. A year ago, a massive migration wreaked havoc at New York airports — a landscape that mimics the tundra.

We’ve kept Drzymala’s picture of the snowy owl on our computer screen and continue to ponder her. We know she is a female because her feathers are barred while a male’s would be almost entirely white. She looks resolutely ahead through yellow eyes.

We talked this week to experts at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology where more than 300 scientists, students, and staff work on the study and conservation of nature. One of the lab’s projects is called eBird in which citizen scientists across the world log onto a computer site to report the birds they have seen. We’ve just joined and urge our readers to do the same. The Cornell lab has millions of bird watchers and 200,000 citizen-science participants. They collect data that the scientists can analyze.

This provides an excellent way to get the big picture in real time. We logged on for a map showing the dispersal of the snowy owl, depicted in hues of purple, from dark for the most frequent sitings, to light for the least. As expected, purple patches dot the Arctic. But there is also a surprising swath of lavender stretching clear across the top of the United States and reaching in fingers into some southern parts.

The siting of snowy owls in the lower latitudes has increased markedly in recent years. In the decade before 2013, eBird data showed just 50 owls in the first week of December compared to more than 350 in that time period for the last two.

Snowy owls, Dr. Kevin McGowan, a Cornell ornithologist, told us, are in irruptive species and have, in cycles, for centuries traveled as far south as the Great Lakes or Boston. Last year’s influx was the biggest in memory, he said causing varied views among scientists as to why. So even the experts have trouble seeing a clear big picture when they are in the midst of it.

“What the truth is, honestly, I’m not sure,” said McGowan.

He holds the birds he studies in high regard, describing snowy owls as “amazing creatures” and “spectacular.” He goes on, detailing their various parts, like feather-covered talons. “They look like they came from another planet...They are like polar bears, built to be living at the top of the world, in the cold and in the dark,” he said.

Snowy owls eat lemmings, which go through boom and bust cycles, McGowan said.  “Owls can track that,” he said and scientists used to think it was a bad sign if the owls had to leave the Arctic to find more prey but, currently, many scientists see the irruptions as a good sign that the population is peaking. This year, McGowan said, there are breeding populations reported in Quebec and north of Hudson Bay.

“It’s an interesting time in the history of the world,” said the ornithologist. “These birds have been doing these cycles for hundreds of years but only periodically.” Of the sudden influx in recent years, he said, “I don’t see this as a good thing. Maybe I’m naturally a pessimist. I see things as not being right.”

McGowan’s best theory on the reason for the recent irruptions is this: Most adult snowy owls spend their winters on pack ice in the frozen Arctic Ocean, apparently eating water fowl. There are open spaces in that water described by a Russian word: polynya.

With climate change, the Arctic is opening up, the Northwest Passage is now navigable. It used to be easy, “like shooting fish in a barrel,” McGowan said, for the snowy owl to catch waterfowl in the polynyas but now, with so much more open water, the waterfowl are widely spread, making it difficult for the owls to capture them.

“The owls treat the northern part of the planet as one thing. They can breed in Canada, Siberia, Norway...Siberian birds are now coming to us,” McGowan said. “We’ve got all the birds usually in central Asia and Russia.”

Our conversation with McGowan left us worried about the future of the snowy owl and mindful of the effect human beings since the Industrial Revolution have had on the creatures with which we share this planet.

If Enterprise readers in a future era look back at our pages, they will see, for instance, the story we wrote in 2012 on a 600-page report put out by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority based on three years of scientific research to model weather patterns in the state’s seven regions into this century. The report noted what we’ve all observed — extreme weather has increased in frequency and intensity, affecting some aspects of society, the economy, and natural ecosystems. Heat waves and heavy downpours are increasing and coastal flooding will put lives and property at risk with damages already costing billions of dollars.

At the same time, the ClimAID report predicts that shorter, warmer winters and reduced snowpack will reduce the ski and snowmobiling industries’ multi-billion-dollar contributions to the state’s economy. But beyond the economic and social impact, snow-dependent species — such as the snowshoe hare, voles, and their winter predators like the fox and the bobcat — will be threatened.

This month, the journal Science published research showing people are on the brink of causing unprecedented damage to the oceans and their animals. Natural habitats have been lost as climate change has cut coral reefs by two-fifths worldwide and as carbon emissions have made seawater more acidic. Additionally, bottom trawlers have damaged the continental shelf and underwater mining has torn up ecosystems.

So, we humans — with 2014 pronounced the hottest year in our history — are hurting the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and the animals on land.

A century hence, will Enterprise readers look back and see the snowy owl that graced our front page as a harbinger of a world that humans changed to the point where owls could no longer live as they always had? Is it too late for us, here and now, to curtail our current use of fossil fuels to reverse the climate change that could be our ruin as well as the owls’?

For thousands of years, people had lived off their own energy and that of their animals. With the dawning of the Industrial Revolution, people began living off the dead, harnessing a new power — fossil fuels. Those sources are running low and the lifestyle they supported will have to change if our civilization is going to survive.

Storms are getting bigger, heat waves are getting longer, glaciers are melting faster, and the ocean is getting warmer. Per capita, the United States is the leading contributor to global warming, at 30.3 percent. We need to change our ways.

We’d prefer to see the owl as a harbinger of hope, a chance we have to set things right with the natural world — to set aside the human lust for ease, replacing it with the restraint a love of nature engenders.

We could build walkable communities rather than car-driven ones. We could return to neighborhood schools with Internet-linked learning rather than fueling massive centralized schools.

We could spend government funds on developing renewable energy sources rather than spending billions of dollars — never mind the cost of human lives — to maintain the flow of oil. We could place more stringent limits on industrial emissions.

We need public solutions to problems we now largely regard as private. We have a chance, in this post-industrial world, to use our knowledge and technology to stop the harm we’ve caused. We have to do it before it’s too late.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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