The Bees and Other Creatures of My Childhood Are Disappearing
I read the other day that bumblebees are in sharp decline, victims of warming temperatures that raise their risk of extinction.
Researchers at the University of Ottawa and University College London, utilizing data from 550,000 observations, compared the distribution of 66 bumblebee species between the periods 1901 to 1974 and 2000 to 2014. The population fell 17 percent in Europe and plummeted a stunning 46 percent in North America.
The year 1974 happens to resonate with me. That’s when I departed for college and left my hometown for good.
The processing of the apocalyptic no doubt varies from person to person. Despite Greta Thunberg’s best efforts (and despite having a teenage son), I had until recently managed to sequester the climate crisis to one of my consciousness’s windowless chambers, the front door deadbolted, with a chair propped up against the knob. Inevitably, perhaps, it has now arrived through the back, mounting an assault on my remembered past.
In the town of my growing-up, the flora and fauna, such as they were, were stable. Extinction, although understood as awful, seemed exotic. The dodo had never roamed my New York suburb. The spotted owl, whose possible extinction shut down logging operations, and the tiny snail darter, an endangered fish that delayed a big dam, were in other states. There had never been Yangtze River dolphins in Tenafly, N.J.
But now the bell is tolling, crazily, insistently, for the animals of my childhood.
When I was about 10 and slogging around our local nature center, the news that a little olive-colored salamander called a newt had a secret identity as the “the red eft” — turning orange as it matured before morphing back to its original color — filled my own geeky little heart with joy. In the 1990s, when scientists became alarmed that the count of frogs, toads and salamanders was nose-diving, the news somehow disjointed my memories of that time.
Then there was the report last year that the number of birds in the United States and Canada had fallen by 29 percent over 50 years. I used to do some casual birding with my mother. Or perhaps not so casual: I remember striding into a meeting with the leader of my Cub Scout troop intent on earning three merit badges, all for imitating bird calls. I think five calls were required per badge; amused, he cut me off after 10 calls.
When I read about the bird report, I considered checking the specific numbers on my favorite childhood species, but then I reached the part that noted that even sparrows and robins had taken “steep losses.” I became dispirited and dropped the idea. In my head, my childhood bird list had just taken a 30 percent hit.
I’ve realized over time that my early memories — seemingly secure in the static web of the past — have a perplexing tendency to conform to information of the present. When I was 50, after one parent had died and the other had moved, I returned to Tenafly for three days as a kind of sightseer. I had fun but was mystified not to see any kids out on their bikes, my cohort’s sole means of transportation until we graduated high school. Familiar streets seemed deserted, like in a “Twilight Zone” episode.
My recollections faded accordingly. The tangy, hormone-soaked immediacy of teenage bike culture dimmed: the exhilaration of speeding down the big hill from the Palisades, the sharp envy of the boys who owned sleek racers with Campagnolo components. What had been vivid images from those days suddenly seemed like dry facts in an old ledger.
We had a kitchen garden set off from the lawn by a white trellis, which had been colonized by a grand, gnarled wisteria vine, with lavender blossoms that looked close up like the bearded faces of little men. Our black cat avoided the wisteria — the pods were poisonous. But the flowers attracted honeybees, yellow jacket wasps and bumblebees.
Initially, I was afraid of them — my phobic Manhattan grandmother had passed that on. But I got to like the bumblebees, because they were fuzzy, because flying seemed to be so much work for them, and because my parents promised that they would never, ever sting me. And they didn’t.
Eventually, the trellis seemed to sink into the lawn. The cat grew old and died. I saw these events happen slowly, in real time. And unlike the declines in the bees, birds and salamanders, they were within the realm of the normal and not the alarming. Then I left home in the final year of the “before” period of the bee study.
Now we inhabit the “after,” and you can keep time by the die-offs. The changes seem sudden and none of them good. In my head, the tape runs backward, then hiccups and breaks. Memory degrades. No bicycles, no birds, no bumblebees. The landscape of my past has flattened; like the future, it looks more like a featureless plain.
David Van Biema is writing a book about the psalms.
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