Interview: Christopher Norment on the beauty of the desert ecosystem

Christopher Norment, author of Relicts of a Beautiful Sea: Survival, Extinction, and Conservation in a Desert World, talks with Carson Rogers about the beauty of the desert ecosystem and the challenges it faces to survive.

Carson Rogers: The title of your book, Relicts of a Beautiful Sea, speaks to the fragile ecosystems that have survived in the desert, despite change and adversity. Why is this the perfect title?

Christopher Norment, author of Relicts of a Beautiful Sea (photo by Martin Norment)Christopher Norment: The animals that I focus on—the Inyo Mountain slender salamander, black toad, and four types of pupfishes—all are completely dependent upon aquatic habitats, and so have become relicts in an arid world. Without enough water they (like humans) will suffer and disappear. The amount of surface water in the Basin and Range country of California and Nevada, where my book is set, has fluctuated tremendously over the last several million years and the fortunes of the salamanders, toads, and pupfishes have waxed and waned with the advance and retreat of these waters. Imagine standing above Death Valley 150,000 years ago and looking out over ancient Lake Manly, which was six hundred feet deep and eighty miles long. Lake Manly—and Searles Lake, Panamint Lake, and Tecopa Lake, on and on—would have been stunningly beautiful, part of a widespread Pleistocene “sea.” The fishes and amphibians that lived in or near these lakes, or along feeder streams, must have prospered. Now these waters have been replaced by desert and salt pan playas, and “my” species have retreated into refugia, where they persevere, sometimes against great odds.

CR: Why is the issue of desert conservation important right now?

CN: There are a number of reasons, particularly in regard to the American Southwest. First, there still is an influx of people into the region, and they all need water. Clark County, Nevada—home of Las Vegas—and Maricopa County in Arizona have both experienced exponential population growth over the past few decades. This growth is unsustainable and places increasing pressure on the region’s resources, particularly water—and the growing demand for water will in turn affect aquatic ecosystems and the organisms that depend upon them. The increasing need for water will only be exacerbated by climate change and its associated droughts. Decreased flows from the Colorado River and low levels in Lake Mead also pose a problem. California, Arizona, and Nevada all need the same limited waters, and there will be conflict over this resource. Other issues, such as solar energy development, may also be important in some areas, but at the moment population growth, water use, and climate change are the biggest conservation issues facing the region.

There is one positive thing to say about this dire situation, though. It does offer us the opportunity to think creatively and courageously about conservation, ecology, population growth, and economics. We must change how we think about desert waters. As I write in Relicts of a Beautiful Sea, “there is water enough in the desert if you live properly.” The problem is, most of us have not done so, and we show little inclination to change our ways.

CR: In your opinion, what is the greatest threat to the desert and the creatures that live there?

CN: I do not believe that there is one “greatest threat,” but rather that the threat depends entirely upon the particular desert species and ecosystems that you are interested in. For the aquatic ecosystems of the Basin and Range country and the species that Relicts of a Beautiful Sea describes, the greatest threats are overpumping groundwater and ill-conceived surface water diversions. In some situations, though, invasive species such as exotic crayfish and mosquitofish may be a bigger issue. But for other species such as the desert tortoise, solar energy development poses a greater risk. Ultimately, though, the biggest threat to the desert comes from human shortsightedness, stupidity, error, and (occasionally) malfeasance.

CR: You pose the question: “Why should anyone concern themselves with a species that few people know about and even fewer will ever see?” What would your answer be?

CN: This is a question that anyone interested in conserving biodiversity in all of its “forms most beautiful and most wonderful” (that’s Darwin) must deal with, and there is no one set of answers that will work for all species, or for all people. There are good, pragmatic reasons for preserving the species that I write about, as well as all of the other rare species that inhabit this world—reasons that are in the best selfish, material interests of humans. In some cases they may provide services that help protect ecosystems that are important to humans. They certainly act as environmental sentinels, warning us of danger, and suggesting how we might manage our water and future more wisely. And they also provide a window to the natural world, an understanding of how evolutionary, ecological, anatomical, and physical systems work.

But it is not just a matter of cost-benefit analyses, of dollars and cents and balance sheets. For me the most important value of Inyo Mountain slender salamanders, black toads, and pupfishes is the way that they have endured in the face of so much adversity—adversity induced by the natural world and by humans. They are in some ways very fragile creatures, completely dependent on water in an arid world. Yet they also are tough and tenacious. I suppose, then, that for me these creatures work as metaphor and inspiration. They help me go on, and one of the reasons that I wrote Relicts of a Beautiful Sea is that I hope the stories of these animals will do the same for others.

CR: You focus on six desert species: a salamander, a toad, and four different types of pupfishes. What made you choose these particular creatures?

CN: I began thinking about the project that eventually resulted in Relicts of a Beautiful Sea in 2009. At the time I had no clear idea of which species I wanted to focus on. In March of 2009 I made a reconnaissance trip to the Death Valley region and found Inyo Mountain slender salamanders for the first time. I was stunned by their presence in such a harsh and unforgiving land and I knew that they had to be part of the project. On the same trip I also got a close look at the Devils Hole, Salt Creek, and Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfishes, and felt drawn to the stories of these species, too. Finally, my reading led me to the Owens pupfish and black toads and when I visited their homes in Owens Valley and Deep Springs Valley, I understood that they, too, needed to be part of my project. I suppose that the qualities that unite all of these creatures, besides their rarity, is their isolation and what I think of as loneliness; they live on or in these tiny islands, surrounded by killing habitat, far from others of their own kind and drifting down their separate evolutionary paths. These qualities are compelling and beautiful, and worthy of the telling.

CR: What have you been surprised to discover over the span of your research?

CN: So many things, which makes it difficult to select a few particularly surprising discoveries. In a general sense, the most surprising thing about the organisms that I’ve been studying is how they embody the conflicting traits of tenacious strength and fragility. Amphibians such as Inyo Mountain slender salamander and black toad exposed to the desert air lose water through their skin at almost the same rate as a dish of open water. And both salamanders and toads—especially toads—are susceptible to pathogens such as the chytrid fungus that has caused the collapse of so many amphibian populations. Disease and desiccation can easily kill these creatures, yet they have endured for hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of years. Take a one-gram lungless salamander (about the weight of two raisins), stick it in a sheltering place, and chances are it can survive for an entire year without eating! That is truly an amazing accomplishment.

But many of my most surprising personal discoveries involve pupfish. One thing that surprised me is the amazing ability of pupfish populations to change aspects of their form when placed in a different environment—what evolutionary biologists call phenotypic plasticity. Take the Devils Hole pupfish, which is smaller than most other pupfishes, lacks pelvic fins, and is quite pacifistic in its behavior. If you stick some Devils Hole pupfish in an artificial refuge with more food and light, within a few generations you will get larger fish, many of which have pelvic fins and are much more aggressive than their ancestors. Another amazing thing about pupfish is that although they have the genetic legacy of freshwater fish, some populations, such as the Cottonball Marsh pupfish on the floor of Death Valley, can survive salinities more than twice that of seawater and temperatures upwards of 100 degrees Fahrenheit! Another stunning survival feat.

Relicts from a Beautiful Sea, by Christopher Norment, book coverCR: You mention that interacting with the desert and its animals has been a healing process for you. Can you tell us more about why it has helped you and how it might help others?

CN: I experienced some personal difficulties early in my life, and although Relicts of a Beautiful Sea is not directly about my experiences as a child, it is one subtext of the book. Beginning in my teen-aged years I have derived strength and hope from the natural world, but never more so than during this project. Living with these creatures and coming into an understanding of how they have persevered in the face of sometimes terrible environmental change, has provided me with some wonderful role models, and given me courage and hope. Working at Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge has also helped. In the 1960s and early 1970s, before the refuge was established, it was devastated by agricultural development and efforts to build a 30,000-person resort/retirement community called Calvada Lakes—in an area that receives less than four inches of precipitation per year. Springs were sucked dry, exotic species spread across the landscape, and many local populations of endemic species were driven to extinction. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has done a magnificent job of bringing these places back to life, and although they still bear the faint scars of their past history, they have been healed. And so I see these places as metaphor and symbol: I too can be healed. This is a very personal view of one benefit of ecological restoration, but perhaps it will resonate with others, too.

CR: You are a scientist, but you write with a lyrical elegance. Which writers have inspired you?

CN: Aw shucks. This is a difficult question for me to answer, for there are so many writers that I could name here. Among primarily nonfiction writers I first would choose Barry Lopez, for his compassionate and lyrical descriptions of the natural world, which often are strongly informed by a scientific sensibility. Other nonfiction writers that have influenced me include Thoreau, Aldo Leopold (Sand County Almanac), Mary Austin (Land of Little Rain), and Craig Childs (Secret Knowledge of Water). Although John Fowles is primarily remembered as a novelist, his extended essay in The Tree, which has to do with his relationship to the natural world and its impacts on his writing, also gave me a strong impression. A few novels that have had a profound impact on my thinking and writing include The English Patient (Michael Ondaatje), The Conversations at Curlow Creek (David Malouf), Angle of Repose (Wallace Stegner), and A Month in the Country (J. L. Carr). Among poets, I’d include Pattiann Rogers, Kenneth Rexroth, Theodore Roethke, and perhaps my favorite living poet, B. H. Fairchild.

CR: Name the writers with whom you would love to have dinner.

CN: First of all I’d choose Charles Darwin, with Aldo Leopold, John Muir, and Henry David Thoreau along for the meal and discussion. Just to shake up Darwin’s Victorian sensibilities, though, I’d add to the mix a young female evolutionary ecologist and a minority evolutionary biologist like Scott Edwards at Harvard. The crucial part, though, would be the setting—no fancy urban restaurants for us! I’d set the table at 11,000 feet, on the summit of Telescope Peak in Death Valley National Park. There we would talk about geology, ecology, and conservation, and stun Darwin with how much we now know about evolution and inheritance. He would be overwhelmed, excited, and (modestly) pleased with his remarkable prescience about so many aspects of modern evolutionary biology.

CR: When did you first develop a passion for the desert and its hidden species?

CN: When I was young, say nine to about fourteen, my family sometimes drove from California to Missouri and back again. My favorite parts of the drive were the mountains, particularly the Sierra and Colorado Rockies. The deserts seemed tedious, hot, and barren. I couldn’t wait to get through them and on to more interesting and hospitable terrain. But when I was 18 I went off to Prescott College in Arizona. The freshman year there began with a three-week wilderness orientation, which took place in the canyon country of northern Arizona and southeastern Utah. I fell in love with places like the Paria River and Canyonlands National Park, which are relatively well-watered, but I soon began to explore more and more arid places, like Death Valley and the Grand Canyon. I started out as a history major at Prescott, but soon switched to biology and after my freshman year was fortunate enough to land summer work as a biological field technician. My studies and field work quickly drew me into the desert’s ecosystems and species, at the same time that my “arid aesthetic” was developing.

CR: You live in western New York, but you write that you are drawn to the “spare country” of the Southwest. Why?

CN: Work—appointment as an assistant professor at The College at Brockport—took my family and me to western New York. But although we have lived here for 21 years, I’ve never felt quite settled and at home in the New York landscape. It’s too green and lush, and the horizons are too close at hand. It’s spare country that I love most—the deserts of the American Southwest, arctic tundra, the High Plains and alpine peaks. For whatever reasons, it’s in those open places, where life is most tenuous and exposed, that I feel most at home. So it’s no accident that in New York I decided to focus my research on the most open habitat available—grasslands. But even the wide-open grasslands of the region are no match for Death Valley, Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, and the Inyo Mountains. I dream of these places repeatedly and return to them as often as I can.

CR: Do you have a favorite anecdote from your many adventures in the desert?

CN: There are so many, and so it’s difficult to choose. One might be from a late April hiking trip that I made when I was a freshman at Prescott College. I was an arid-lands novice and had not truly learned about the importance of water in the desert. Three of us were doing a rugged cross-country route in an isolated part of the western Grand Canyon. On the first day we had 13 miles to go to reach water. We started late, wandered off-route, and ran out of water because we had neglected to take enough with us. We also had no flashlights and so couldn’t hike at night. This was an early episode of what I call, “Bozos in the Desert.” At dark we ended up above a two-hundred-foot-high cliff and had to make a very dry camp because we were too exhausted and it was too dangerous to continue walking—but we could hear a creek flowing just below us. I was too dehydrated to eat and just lay miserably in my sleeping bag, dreaming about the water and imagining how wonderful it would be to be down there in the canyon. At first light we packed up and reached the creek after about 15 minutes of hiking—and there followed the most wonderful drink of water that I have ever had in my life. This experience taught me, in a very direct way, the value of water in the desert, and how lack of experience and forethought can brew so much trouble.

CR: What changes would you like to see in desert conservation, and what will it take to achieve it?

CN: There are two of these. First, I would like to see planners, politicians, and the general public develop an understanding of the ecological concept of carrying capacity and its implications relative to water use and population growth in the American Southwest. Ecologists define carrying capacity as the maximum population size that an area can support. This concept should make sense to most people, at least in terms of non-human animals: not enough food (or water!) and a population of moose, wolves, or pupfish will crash. The problem comes when applying the concept to advanced technological societies. Economic optimists tend to see humans as “biologically exceptional”: our capacity for technological innovation allows Homo sapiens to escape ecological constraints. And we certainly have done this in many places, at many times. But this historical fact does not necessarily mean that we will continue to do so, forever.

A second needed change would involve widespread acceptance that in the long run, what is good for the desert’s aquatic organisms also will be good for humans. If we do a good job of managing water for pupfish, salamanders, and springsnails, we also will do a good job of managing it for people—if we are willing to think creatively, live carefully, and consider the true implications of carrying capacity. As Joseph Wood Krutch understood when he listened to a chorus of spring peepers, that vernal avalanche of frog-song that rises into celebration each April in western New York, “we are all in this together.”

Christopher Norment is professor of environmental science and biology at the College at Brockport, State University of New York, and author of Relicts of a Beautiful Sea: Survival, Extinction, and Conservation in a Desert World, In the Memory of the Map: A Cartographic Memoir, and Return to Warden’s Grove: Science, Desire, and the Lives of Sparrows.