This past summer I had the opportunity to travel to Baja California, Mexico for a graduate biology course with Miami University and Project Dragonfly’s Earth Expeditions program. I got to explore incredible plant diversity in the Vizcaíno Desert while staying at Rancho San Gregorio, and snorkel alongside whale sharks in the Sea of Cortez while at the Vermilion Sea Institute. During the course my peers and I learned from local experts, conducted our own research and engaged in discussions about current conservation issues. Throughout the entire experience I found myself reflecting on one central theme: impact. How had I been impacted? And how have I impacted the ecosystems I’ve been studying and exploring?
In terms of human impact, I was reminded of the lasting effects that our actions can have on ecosystems. On the drive up the east coast of Baja I got to see where the Colorado River empties into the Sea of Cortez…or at least where it used to empty. The same river I rafted on in the Rocky Mountains as a child historically made its way to Mexico where it sustained a vibrant delta ecosystem. Starting with the Hoover Dam in 1936 and many subsequent alterations and diversions, the flow of water has all but stopped (Mueller et al., 2017). Organizations in both countries are currently working on the complex issue of restoring the delta, but every drop of the Colorado River is already allocated or “owned” by people and organizations upstream. While this is a huge international issue, it also reminded me that small choices I make such as watering plants in my yard will impact people and habitats downstream.
It’s not a new issue; humans have been altering ecosystems for centuries. On an ethnobotany hike through the desert landscape near Rancho San Gregorio, we walked through a spring-fed oasis alive with birdsong. I noticed that both native fan palms and non-native date palm trees were growing side by side; date palms were introduced to Baja by Jesuit missionaries in the 1700s (De Grenade & Nabhan, 2013). Both species of palm fill the important keystone role of providing habitat for a ton of other native species, like birds and insects. While date palms take space away from fan palms, their impact on humans and other species can be positive; they provide habitat, building materials and a fruit crop of dates. Seeing the two tree species coexisting gave me hope; ecosystems can be very resilient, and many species continue to find new ways to thrive despite the stresses we put them through.
Think Globally, Act Locally: The plants we select for our yards and parks, and the water we use to keep them flourishing, can impact other ecosystems near and far. By choosing native, drought-tolerant plants we can save water and create habitat for other species, though its not always that simple. My backyard vegetable garden is filled with water-thirsty, non-native plants, but locally grown food can have many other positive impacts in terms of health and sustainability. I sometimes find myself getting overwhelmed trying to make the best, most sustainable, eco-friendly choices. Is the chemical-free product better than the one in plastic-free packaging? Is organic/fair trade/locally grown in my budget this month? If I take public transportation instead of driving I have to wake up how early!? It can seem nearly impossible to do anything without impacting ecological systems in some way. But we can make informed choices, learn from mistakes and try to ensure that the benefits outweigh the negatives. We can multiply our impact by sharing our passion with others, advocating for conservation policies, and voting in elections.
Ultimately my time in Baja reminded me to keep seeking out inspiration from nature and other nature-lovers. When I feel inspired I also feel more motivated and less consumed by the doom and gloom. I felt an overwhelming sense of awe while watching the sun rise over el Valle de los Cirios, and again when swimming alongside whale sharks. Remembering those feelings of wonder and amazement help to overshadow any doubts or guilt, and motivate me to inspire others. I feel lucky to get to work with students and share in their joy and curiosity; the looks on their faces remind me of the magic in watching a hawk gliding overhead, digging up an armful of potatoes, or looking skyward to see that all the cottonwood leaves have turned to gold.
What inspires you? Share below or get outside and find out!
De Grenade, R., & Nabhan, G. P. (2013). Baja California Peninsula oases: An agro-biodiversityof isolation and integration. Applied geography, 41, 24-35.
Mueller, E. R., Schmidt, J. C., Topping, D. J., Shafroth, P. B., Rodríguez-Burgueño, J. E., Ramírez-Hernández, J., & Grams, P. E. (2017). Geomorphic change and sediment transport during a small artificial flood in a transformed post-dam delta: the Colorado River delta, United States and Mexico. Ecological Engineering, 106, 757-775.