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Creek Running North

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October 14, 2003

Pelecanus occidentalis

Driving across the Bay Bridge this morning - I'm reluctant these days to expose my broken, unshod toe to the possibility of being trodden upon in a crowded BART car - I saw a brown pelican gliding smooth and low over the steel struts of the cantilevered section.

The bridge construction there is massive, giant I-beams painted gray, two-inch rivet heads thrust into the seams every few inches, stark geometric lines backlit by unfiltered sun. And above it, now eclipsed by the girders, now emerging, the bird slid past as though riding a glass rail. Breezes ruffled its down just slightly.

I cannot see a pelican without thinking of fragility. When I was attempting to grow up 35 years or so ago, pelicans were in big trouble. Widespread use of DDT had interfered with the birds' ability to metabolize calcium. Eggs were laid with insufficiently thick shell, crushing under the weight of the mother pelican.

DDT is an anti-environmental cause célèbre: those who valiantly defend the rights of large corporations against the evil machinations of the public point to its ban in the US as an example of environmentalists' not caring about people. Malaria deaths are up, they say, and the poor of the world are deprived of a reliable method of killing the Anopheles mosquito. Never mind that the mosquitos had evolved resistance to DDT by 1969, and that wholesale social disruption is a far more efficient promoter of malaria than Rachel Carson could ever have been. These people have a point and by God they are going to make it: How cozy for them that those deaths from malaria support their ideology if one doesn't look too closely.

After a blood meal, I am informed, mosquitos look for a nearby vertical surface to land on, and there they stay for at least a few hours. Mix whitewash with a bit of pesticide, paint nearby walls and posts, and you have an efficient, effective way of killing mosquitos that does not involve broadcasting poison across entire watersheds. In Africa, where malaria strikes hardest, the native Pyrethrum flower provides an effective yet relatively safe insecticide, the chemical makeup of which - due to being manufactured by plants rather than by a factory - differs enough from batch to batch that mosquitoes are much less likely to evolve resistance. Making Pyrethrum whitewash would promote public health and local economies, and using it would be a highly targeted pesticide application method that nearly eliminated the risk to wild ecosystems and human health from massive insecticide spraying.

That's unworkable, of course, say those in opposition to us envirowhackos. It ill serves the economy to grow what you need in your own town. The free market demands that we pull oil from the ground in one land, refine it in another, leaving wastes in the air and water, then sell the toxic product for use in a third. If the brown pelican must be sacrificed on the altar of commerce, then so be it.

This is all a lot to load on the shoulders of a single pelican, who must now contend with flame retardants in the fish he eats as well as legacy DDT in the Bay's sediment. Still, I find hope in his reverse commute this morning. Despite the malignant stupidity of those who value next-quarter stock value over the long-term viability of the ecosystems, a few of us - pelican, human, whatever - still find the strength to fly against the prevailing traffic.

Posted by Chris Clarke at October 14, 2003 12:06 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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