Editor’s note: Conservation International is powered by 1,500 people in more than 30 countries — their interests, like their hometowns, are all over the map. In this monthly feature, our experts share some of their favorite things.
Rethinking the tree of life
Will McCarry near Denver, Colorado. Photo courtesy of McCarry
Picture the tree of life — a grand oak with sprawling branches that represent the evolution of life. You and everyone you know are perched on a distant twig, amid a lively gathering of great apes. Other nearby mammalian branches are home to everything from blue whales to tigers and tapirs. Farther along, are other forms of life — plants, fungi and enigmatic entities that become smaller and stranger the farther we get from our own little limb.
This tree, rudimentarily sketched by Darwin in the margins of his notebook, is one of the most famous images in science — which sort of makes it an immutable truth, right? This summer, I finally picked up David Quammen’s “The Tangled Tree,” a book that unravels the idea that life can be so neatly classified. As the title suggests, Quammen unveils the intricate intertwining of branches in our evolutionary tree, emphasizing that natural selection is just one of the mechanisms driving evolution. From ancient viral infections that today make up 8 percent of our genome, to the bacteria that eventually evolved into our cells’ mitochondria — we are composite organisms, with a lineage deeply tied to the rest of life on Earth.
For me, the book and its ideas are deeply life-affirming — part of an increasing trend in science that is slowly dismantling the antiquated idea that humans are separate from everything else on the planet. It's the ultimate ego check — what I like to call "the great humbling” — in which we pluck ourselves from the center of the universe and remember that we are an intrinsic part of nature. I see it as a continuation of the conversation sparked by astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson, in which we trace our ancestry back through the eons, to the very birth of the stars in our galaxy, finding connection in the knowledge that we are part of something bigger.
Songs for your climate playlist
Isabella Pucker in Ma'in, Jordan. Photo courtesy of Pucker
A small folk band came to perform on my college campus during my junior year. Never having heard of it, I was reluctant to go, but a couple of my friends dragged me along. Little did I know I was in for a treat. GoldenOak is a brother-sister duo from Maine. Their harmonies are melodic and ethereal — yet their lyrics snap you out of reverie as they speak to the devastating toll of climate change on the Earth, and on our physical and emotional well-being.
Their latest album, “Room to Grow,” is a beautiful example of how art can be a powerful — and accessible — means of relaying the urgency of the climate emergency. One song, "Falter," highlights the greed of the fossil fuel industry and touches on a galvanizing force in the environmental justice movement: the fact that communities that suffer the worst impacts of climate change are often the least to blame for it. Another track, "Little Light," offers a remedy to the maladies described in “Falter” — summoning us to look to the past and future for guides on how to live in harmony with the natural world.
Reinventing the eel
Cassandra Kane hiking in New Hampshire. Photo courtesy of Kane
As part of Conservation International’s development team, I spend most of my time at work bringing faraway projects to life for our donors. So, in my free time, I take extra delight in stories about nature in my own backyard. Lately, while walking the dog, I’ve been digging through a podcast called Gastropod, whose two hosts “look at food through the lens of science and history.”
I recently enjoyed an episode that opens with one of the hosts plunging their hands into a cold Maine river to catch… a baby eel. Over the next 45 minutes, I learned that scientists still don’t really understand where eels go to reproduce — and that most eels that end up on sushi plates around the world start their life in my home state’s rivers as transparent, slippery juveniles called elvers. At the heart of the story is something we talk about often at Conservation International: the importance of sustainable, well-managed fisheries. The episode features a Maine woman who started the United States’ first large-scale eel farm after learning that most elvers caught in Maine’s rivers are sold to faraway fish farms in countries like China — where quotas are not heavily enforced, and a lack of regulations can lead to environmental contamination. To keep the eels’ economic value in the state (a pound of elvers can fetch up to $2,000!) and ensure a safe product, the business purchases wild-caught elvers from local fishers, raises them to a harvestable size and sells them live, smoked or frozen.
I returned home from my walk knowing more about eels — not to mention, my innovative Maine neighbors. If, like me, you revel in storytelling that combines science, history and people, check out “Reinventing the Eel.” So far, I haven’t yet sampled the eels caught and raised near my backyard, but there’s a good chance I’ll bring some to Thanksgiving dinner.