Discover more from Chasing Nature
Our New High-Water Mark
From my canoe, adrift on the flooded streets of Vermont's capital city, an essay on the climate disaster and our routine assault on nature.
ON THE MORNING after the horrible rains, when the sun finally returned to Vermont, a tiger swallowtail butterfly wheeled and fluttered high over the city of Montpelier.
Most days in July this would not be unusual — I routinely encounter charismatic wildlife in the state capital: bald eagles, black bears, mink, even a moose in the river some years ago. But never have I watched a butterfly on the wing while padding my canoe through my city’s flooded downtown district.
From the boat I discovered that every bookstore and restaurant, every bank and bakery, our library and fire station, our two movie theaters, basically anything at ground level downtown was lost to the Flood of 2023. I paddled beside blue mailboxes submerged, parking meters treading water, and coffee cups floating. It smelled of mud and diesel — and despair.
Other than the keening storefront alarms, Montpelier was quiet, surreal. So calm was the city after the storm that its storefronts cast reflections in the floodwaters. But this was no Venice. I had no business watching a yellow butterfly with black stripes from a canoe near the intersection of State and Main.
But now that the waters have retreated, now that we’ve hauled to the curbs our soggy carpets and furniture, our ruined books and appliances, and our lifetimes of treasures and memories; now that we’ve shoveled muck from basements and cried together, and even as recovery still seems so painful and implausible, people are finding time to ask me about wildlife.
I get the question a lot after floods or freak spring snowstorms or heat waves: How does it affect the birds and insects and other wild things? I like it that people ask. We’re human, after all: we are of nature and most of us still care about it. And yet my answer is usually the same: Nature’s got bigger problems than floods or ice storms or heat waves.
To be sure, in powerful storms like this one nature takes a hit. Plants and animals and many other living things suffer or die. But even before the climate crisis made them more frequent and fierce, storms have always displaced or killed living things. They’re natural. And like the swallowtail flying above Montpelier’s carnage, nature generally does better than people in “natural disasters.”
Relative newborns on this planet, we humans are ill-adapted to its hostilities. We live where there is too little water or beside rivers and oceans now rising. We perish in heat waves and cannot survive winters without burning things.
More to the point, the greatest threats to wildlife come not from extreme weather, not even from climate change, but rather from the demands and routines of our ordinary living: mostly the land we clear or destroy for housing, commerce, crops and livestock. Basically, nature suffers most from the ways we eat and buy stuff.
The climate crisis rightly gets lots of attention, especially in the wake of fires and hurricanes and floods. Make no mistake — global heating is an intensifying threat to biological diversity and especially to human lives and the well-being of communities. It is an existential crisis. But it’s not the greatest threat to nature, at least not yet. Instead, our routine exploitation of land and oceans — for logging, agriculture, fishing and other demands of humanity — does more damage to wildlife and wild places.
A forest bulldozed for a shopping mall, a prairie plowed for crops or livestock, a wetland altered or filled for housing — these are the most proximate threats to nature on a global scale. After all, nothing is more damaging or deadly to a bird or a butterfly, a salamander or an orchid, than outright destruction of its habitat, its home. The flood made that painfully clear by way of the Vermonters who lost their homes or livelihoods last week.
Other major threats include invasive species — plants and animals introduced (often inadvertently in the course of global commerce) to places where where they proliferate and harm or displace the local, rich biological diversity. Pollution as well, including widespread use of pesticides and fertilizers, in many instances poses a greater threat to nature than climate change. All of this comes from a body of research designed to help us identify and address most potent “drivers of global anthropogenic biodiversity loss,” or what most of us know as the beauty and variety and abundance of the natural world.
Floods make news, destroy lives and rightly get our attention. They shake us into thinking about forces of nature beyond our control. And in their wake, and because we care, we think beyond ourselves and wonder about the impacts on wildlife. The greatest harm to nature now comes from the human footprint: our relentless exploitation of the earth’s natural resources is the flood that happens to nature every day.
Looking back on it now, that tiger swallowtail, airborne on gossamer wings, lighter and more ephemeral than a plastic coffee-cup lid, was about the only thing normal in Montpelier the morning after the rains. Living closer to nature than many Americans, we Vermonters tend to notice what’s wild. And we recognize that solutions to the biodiversity and climate crises necessarily overlap. We must solve them both.
And yet as my community works feverishly to recover, this flood is only the latest reminder that the world is becoming only more inhospitable to people and to nature alike. Until now, I’ve never feared the rivers in my city. Here in Vermont, and in similarly flooded communities from China to India to Spain last week, we’re all living under a new, daunting and rising high-water mark.
Essays like this one don’t grow on trees or flow like rivers. If you haven’t done so already, please consider subscribing to Chasing Nature or upgrading your subscription to paid so that I can keep writing for everyone. Thanks!
Postscripts and References
To support flood recovery in Vermont, consider donating to:
- writes . Each week Jason offers us powerful ideas about our shared fate on a warming planet. Please subscribe to his Substack.