Unexplored earth

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(Host) Having been reminded this spring of the challenges involved in exploring space, commentator Ted Levin finds himself once again contemplating the challenges we still face here at home.

(Levin) When the late Ken Kesey was asked how he felt about NASA’s space program, he replied that we don’t deserve to be in space until we learn how to live on Earth. And after pondering the loss of the Columbia this spring, the destruction in Iraq, and the possible nuclear proliferation on the Korean peninsula, I think more than ever that Mr. Kesey had a point. There is so much work that still needs to be done right here on Earth – even discoveries yet to be made.

As planets go, Earth is small, but there are still millions of questions about our little planet that await an answer. How does a rookie monarch butterfly from Thetford find a certain tree in central Mexico in which to spend the winter? And for every question that hasn’t been answered there is an order of magnitude more that haven’t even been asked.

Tacked to my office wall is a color-coded map, “World Biogeographical Provinces,” which describes the distributions of plant and animal communities. Unlike conventional maps with rigid political boundaries, lines on this map show biological provinces that are mutable, often with wide transition zones that shift and shimmy with the vagaries of climate and geologic forces. When I look at this map, I see a world order of biologic rhythms, a world that shelters millions of species, each one a work in progress, evolving over eons to occupy a singular niche. Millions more are undiscovered and their radiating webs of relationships unknown.

Several weeks ago, I spent an hour with my family watching three bald eagles along the Connecticut River – birds that showed up one cold morning in late November, having summered in the green woods of Maine or off the coast of Newfoundland. They were the first eagles my wife and step-son had ever seen in the wild, a species my seven-year old ranks with orcas and cheetahs, as great living works of planetary art. Our backs to busy Route 10, we watched them as they watched us. The eagles made the river seem infinitely wilder and reminded me that the possibilities for surprise are far from exhausted here on Earth.

There are still too many places left on Earth for anyone to explore in a lifetime. There are jungles, mountains, islands, and wind swept tundras, each populated by a particular cast of species that reflects local climate, topography and minute differences in soil chemistry. There are places right near my own home that I haven’t explored yet.

I remember the first bald eagle I ever saw, in long-ago summer sky, above an Adirondack Lake. Big, brown-bodied and white-headed, the bird teased the wind with immaculate tail feathers that opened and closed like a card trick. I know it’s inevitable that man will continue to be drawn to the stars, but we also need to remember that there’s plenty of exploration still to be done here at home.

This is Ted Levin from Coyote Hollow in Thetford Center.

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