As a child, I loved the poems and prose of Rudyard Kipling. He was a wonderful storyteller, a poet whose measured rhymes delight the ear, and an author who transported readers to exotic, faraway lands.
The poem Recessional, a bleak and foreboding meditation upon the fate of empires, remains a favorite after so many years.
Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget
I had no idea where Nineveh and Tyre were located, assuming they were picturesque ruins somewhere in the Middle East. It wasn’t until I picked up Ann and Paul Ehrlich’s 2004 book One with Nineveh that I understood what happened to that great city, and how Nineveh’s fate could one day be ours.
“The great capital city of the Assyrian empire was Nineveh,” the Ehrlichs wrote, “located on the Tigris River in ancient Mesopotamia. At the height of its glory more than six centuries before the birth of Christ, it was surrounded by rich irrigated farmlands, covered some nine square miles and had an estimated population of 120,000, an enormous concentration for the time. Nineveh was a city of huge palaces and temples and gorgeous sculptures.”
When English archaeologist Austin Layard discovered the long-abandoned ruins of the city in the 1840s, he found a barren, desert landscape. What happened? The city wasn’t ravaged by fire, pillaged by invaders or abandoned. It was made uninhabitable by the city’s residents. They were people like us; rich, poor and everything in between. They cultivated crops, diverted water for irrigation and domestic use, cut wood from nearby forests, grazed animals in pastures and fought off enemies when necessary.
What caused Nineveh and other Edenic cities in Mesopotamia to disappear? The Ehrlichs cite two factors: deforestation in the surrounding hills and mountains affected water supplies and irrigation salinized productive farmland. The deterioration was slow but inevitable.
Mesopotamians understood what was happening to their environment, as cuneiform tablets from more than 4,000 years ago attest, but they had neither the technology nor the will to combat it. At its peak, the Assyrian empire was as feared, powerful and world dominating as the United States in the second half of the 20th century. Yet world dominance couldn’t conquer environmental deterioration.
As a kid growing up in Colorado Springs, I was an avid lepidopterist. Mentored by F. Martin Brown, a teacher at Fountain Valley who authored Colorado Butterflies, I was out collecting almost every summer day in the late 1940s to the early ’50s. I still have the collection, so I decided to see how many butterfly species that I collected still exist in and around Colorado Springs. Such a census, although not scientifically valid, might be a useful metric of the health of our natural environment.
After two summers of stumbling around creek beds, roadsides, vacant lots and mountain trails, the results are dispiriting. More than 90 species are represented in my 65-year-old collection. In two summers, I only saw 12 different species. Once-common butterflies were rarely seen, including clouded sulfurs, painted ladies, black swallowtails and common skippers.
Habitat destruction was clear everywhere. Non-native vegetation has overwhelmed creek sides, drainage ways and roadsides, choking out native plants that nourish caterpillars. Gardeners plant exotics and use weed killers and insecticides. Kind souls who try to recreate native landscapes find it difficult to do so, thanks to invasive weeds that can take over an unmanaged tract in a few weeks.
The cabbage white, a European invasive species that came to America 160 years ago, is the only butterfly species that is still abundant throughout the city.
The disappearance of so many species ought to be a wake-up call for the most toxic invasive species on earth — Homo sapiens. Unlike the ancient Assyrians, we can remedy environmental destruction. The Ehrlichs dedicated their book to nine kids, in the hope that they’d grow up in and make a better future. I hope so too — and meanwhile, I’ll try to make our scraggly yard as butterfly friendly as possible (even to cabbage whites).
We all do what we can…