Declining Baselines

An elderly man was undergoing his annual physical exam when the doctor said, “I notice that you belch a lot.”  


“Yes,” responded the patient, “but it doesn’t matter because there is no sound and no smell.”  


“We need to address it nonetheless,” says doc.  “Take these pills twice a day and come back in a week’s time.”


A week later the patient reported that he was belching just as much, but now the smell was awful.


“Well, that solves your inability to smell,” says the doctor.  “Now lets deal with your hearing.” 


We perceive the world through our senses, which in turn becomes part of our experience.  My father could remember some of the early cross-Channel airplane flights in England, and for the rest of his life he could not resist the opportunity to watch a plane flying overhead.  The miracle of powered flight was something I took for granted; for me it was the moon landing that caught my imagination, and still does.   My son was born after 1969 and he was fascinated by the shuttle and the space station programs.


But there is another side to this experience. A friend brought his teen-age sons to help cut firewood. As we were returning to the vehicle, loaded with red oak,  he paused, pointed to some clover in the field and explained that it used to grow in lawns when he was a boy, that when he was their age he could not walk barefoot on the grass because of the danger of getting stung by insects. 


Bees on clover in grass was a foreign concept to the two young men; it was beyond the realms of their experience, and they are not exactly ‘urbanites.’  The term to describe this is ‘declining baselines,’ ie. the process of becoming accustomed to and accepting worsening conditions as normal. We forget that things were not always this way, we accept as normal the rapid disappearance of whole species and we experience wonder and joy  when we see the survivors, whether it’s clover, salmon in a river that used to boil over with them or bison on a prairie, without realizing what used to be ‘normal.’ 


Incidentally wild bison today roam just 1% of their former range and prairie dogs number 2% of their former population.  As is invariably the case their respective fates are linked. The bison mowed  the prairie grasses to make way for prairie dog colonies  which in turn improved the quality of forage for the bison.


When I first learned to drive, the attendant at the gas station would unfailingly wipe the  windscreen free of bugs, and my first butterfly collection came from the myriad of insects caught in the front grill of my father’s Citroen (I first got to see an American-made car when I was in college.)   When was the last time you had bugs on your windscreen?  When was the last time you had to clean the grill on the front of your car? And incidentally, I thought this might be more a reflection of the improved air flow of modern car design, but some friends with antique cars confirmed that they don’t get bugs on the windscreens and grills of their models from the 1940’s and 50’s either. 


Why is this important?  Because, as Derrick Jensen writes in the July/August issue of Orion,  “ ... it is harder to fight for what you don’t love than for what you do, and it’s hard to love what you don’t know you’re missing.  It’s harder still to fight an injustice you do not perceive as an injustice but rather as just the way things are.  How can you fight an injustice you never think about because it never occurs to you that things have ever been any different?”  


Responses to perceived injustice brings to mind the current debate on cyber-spying but at a more local level, I wonder if my grandchildren will ever question the mountain of spam greeting cards they receive from commercial sites on their birthdays?  Will they ask how and why a .com organization  has their birth dates or will they accept it as normal?  


Incidentally when teaching at a local college, a week before my birthday I would receive a proforma card signed by the college president.  One year, after he had walked passed me in the corridor without recognition or acknowledgment, I sent it back with a note explaining that without human contact it was a meaningless, even demeaning, gesture, and asked to be removed from the computer-generated list of birthday cards. It took the  administration two years to comply with my request.


In the words of Milan Kundera , the Czech author of The Unbearable Likeness of Being,  whose books were banned by the Communist regimes of Czechoslovakia until the downfall of the regime in the 1989, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” 

In our beekeeping world the chemo-agricultural companies have tremendous power and they have made unknowable sums of money from toxic products. No doubt they hope that we will forget what it was like to keep bees before neonicotinoids, or believe that there are no meaningful alternatives to the current pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.  Our challenge is to remember and to keep on speaking out, not only for the health of humankind and the planet but also for the myriad of mutually beneficial insects who cannot speak for themselves. 


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Latest comments

27.11 | 16:01

Moustache, wax? Of course. Now if all of the drones had mustaches ...

27.11 | 12:43

One of our club members says he got into beekeeping in order to make his own mustache wax. There's the explanation for the bearded/mustached ABF attendees!

13.08 | 05:43

Good morning Mr. Barnes, I'm so pleased to see the best of history teachers is still going strong! Looking at your website brings back some great memories

21.05 | 07:18

Its pleasure to read about Boy Scout here. He plays vital role to serve humanity. I will share after my