Biodiversity and its flock of options

Audubon

There is a garden toward the end of our lane that is exquisitely beautiful right now. It’s filled with late-summer flowers in their royal and scarlet reds, their purples, mauves, pinks, yellows, blues, salmons, and whites — rounded and quilled dahlias, cosmos, mourning brides, daisies, phlox, statice, bachelor buttons, nicotiana, and a butterfly bush.

I can’t pass by without pausing, and every time I do, I feel a surge of happiness. The flowers have different shapes, different sizes, different colours. Individually they are lovely. But together they are magnificent.

What makes the whole so glorious is the diversity and the way each flower complements the others.

It’s a combination that we encounter time and time again. In wild landscapes and on busy city streets. In the Temagami old growth forest and on Queen Street West on a warm summer afternoon.

Generally, when we can see it, we revel in the variability. As Mark Peck of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) put it: « The variability itself is beautiful. It’s the beauty of life itself.’’

Peck was speaking about birds. He’s an ornithologist, a specialist in birds, and we had just finished touring the exhibition of hand-painted engravings of Canadian birds, created more than 160 years ago by John James Audubon. The exhibition opened at the ROM today.

I’ve never had more than a mild interest in Audubon’s work, but looking at the 100 engravings in the exhibition, I was surprised to find I was strangely moved. In the wild, we never see such variety in one place, so the visual impact was unique. Like the flowers in our garden, the whole was much greater than its parts.

Within that whole, the diversity was immense — from the Hudson Bay titmouse to the wild turkey, from the whooping crane and the great blue heron to the red-shouldered hawk and the golden plover.

In the hope that maybe here, in this exhibit, there might be an argument for maintaining diversity of all sorts, I asked Peck why all the individual birds were so different.

« I don’t know,’’ he said. « And I’m not even sure I want an answer. I’m not sure we can ever understand why they evolved over so many million years. They’re just plainly and simply wonderful.’’

As a philosophical paean to beauty and the mystery of life, his response was admirable. However, it was far from the defence I was looking for. « But what if we drove another species of bird to extinction,’’ I asked?’’

Probably something else would take over, he said. Birds are at or near the top of the food chain. Most need a high protein diet. There are very few that eat seeds exclusively. So the break in the food chain would not be great.

This was not at all encouraging. But then he added, « However, the more you restrict biodiversity, the more you restrict change and the more we lose options.’’

Remember, he said, that there is not now, and there never has been, a world in balance. The nature of the world is change. « That’s what evolution is all about. The world is in a constant evolutionary cycle. So any alteration that we force on the world today will change how evolution proceeds in the future.

« And if we carry this too far, we lessen the basic capacity for change. . . . and that’s the real danger.

« Variability is what life on earth is all about. What we see all around us is not only the grandeur of the present and the past. It is the grandeur of the possibilities of the future.’’ A grandeur that only evolution can deliver, and only variability can guarantee.

In the end, what he so eloquently described offered a far more ringing defence of biodiversity than I had expected. To honour beauty, after all, is to celebrate life. And that, surely, is where concern for biodiversity begins.

The exhibition, mounted with the help of Canada Trust, runs until Nov. 14. It’s worth seeing.

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