“We have only just begun to feel the repercussions of climate change: we are today in a position likely to be envied by future generations.” – Cornelia F. Mutel, A Sugar Creek Chronicle
The first edition of A Natural History of Camden and Rockport came out in 1984, written and illustrated by local resident E.C. (“Beedy”) Parker. Recently, she decided to issue an informal update and began gathering anecdotal information from naturalists and friends on how the nature of midcoast Maine had changed in the intervening three decades. What she found is unsettling.
Her observations fall in the realm of “natural history,” a somewhat antiquated field largely replaced by the science of ecology and its sub-disciplines. Naturalists tend to make more general notes of plant and animal life as they are shaped by geology, climate and human uses. In some ways, Parker’s book is reminiscent of early 20th-century nature journals, being one naturalist’s informal portrait of place.
Parker is the first to acknowledge that the historic habit of faithfully observing and recording natural events is no longer a popular pastime. When asked what she learned from quizzing others about changes they had noticed, this was her response: “Few people are paying attention and even fewer make records. The kinds of observations we want are not out there.” People are spending less time outdoors and when they do, she mused, it’s rarely attentive, solitary time; “We live in our houses and cars, and maybe our gardens.”
More people are “glued to devices” these days, acknowledges Parker’s longtime friend Esperanza Stancioff, but she sees a strong resurgence of citizen scientists involved in organized efforts like the program she helps coordinate, the University of Maine’s Signs of the Seasons Program. People attentive to changes in nature, Stancioff finds, often like recording observations that they know will be useful to scientists and policy-makers.
Data from backyard observations can be limited (even, in Parker’s words, “sketchy”), but taken collectively they reveal declines and disturbances in the natural world that should sound alarms.
Many of the observations reported by Parker reflect broader and widely publicized changes: declines in bees, butterflies, bats, frogs, toads and songbirds; an explosion of deer ticks (virtually unheard of three decades ago); the spread of invasive plants like multiflora rose and bedstraw; and a parade of new insects that threaten hemlock, ash, hackmatack and beech trees along with viburnum shrubs and harvests from many berry and stone-fruit plants.
The most dramatic change Parker found occurred in the rocky intertidal zone, a setting she sketched in 1984 with multiple rockweed species, blue mussels, periwinkles, barnacles, coralline algae, hermit crabs, pink encrusting algae, Irish moss, green sea urchins and northern sea stars. (The accompanying photo from 1979, taken in Penobscot Bay, depicts that abundant marine life.) While the rockweed remains, much of the other intertidal life has disappeared.