This is Yucca Meditation. Why yucca? It’s an abundant succulent on our place here in west Texas and every time I look out from our porch to the southern skies and mesas, I see yuccas. Yuccas here, yuccas there, yucca yucca everywhere. I like yucca. Surrounded by a lot of yucca, I think about many things. Nothing more, nothing less.
The Pond on Baird Hill
I have written a post on the pond at West Cut on Baird Hill, along Interstate 20, near Abilene, Texas. The pond in the last two years has gone from a vibrant, lush pond of cattails and flora to a grayish-brown receptacle of run-off from nearby inclines. Though my proof is impressionable and subject to further research, the most likely cause of the pond’s decline is water run-off from construction of power lines above the pond that transfer power from wind farms on the east and north side of Abilene. I saw the construction crews and they did not run willy-nilly all over the ranch land. From what I saw, crews behaved as stewards to the land.
These days, wind farm blades turn and electricity emerges from a green source, renewable and free by all accounts. Even so, because of transmission lines, a pond declined in health, an impact unintended and unforeseeable. This brings me to the cats.
Dayak of Borneo
After World War II, the World Health Organization (WHO) and other similar agencies sought to eradicate the mosquito that carried the plasmodium of malaria. DDT was the first insecticide applied in regions that had a high incidence of malaria. In Borneo live the Dayak people, residing in large single homes or long houses of up to 500 people. After the application of DDT to the mosquito population, malaria was eradicated and the overall quality of life and energy of the tribe dramatically increased. The tribe’s health had never been so good (1).
Living in the long houses, however, were cockroaches, cats and small lizards — the gecko. The cockroaches ingested the DDT and the geckos ate the cockroaches. Normal pattern. Cats ate the lizards, but the lizards had become lethal weapons through the eating of so many cockroaches laced with DDT. The cats, unfortunately, all died from eating the lizards. Not normal.
The unintended consequences of helping the Dayak people eradicate malaria did not stop there. When the cats died, rats from the surrounding woods invaded the villages, bringing the sylvatic plague through fleas, lice and parasites rats normally vectored. The Dayak missed their cats greatly. The Royal Air Force (RAF) and the WHO met the situation in quick order. The RAF parachuted 14,000 living cats into the villages to eat the rats. I can see it now: parachutes with kitty-cats in crates dropping from the skies. I don’t think they would have harnessed the kitties with little webbings and ripcords, do you?
It doesn’t end there.
In the roofs of the thatched houses lived a small caterpillar that burrowed into the rafters and before the DDT spraying, caused little damage. Parasites and predators of the little caterpillar had kept the caterpillar population in check, particularly the wasp. The DDT killed the parasites of the caterpillar, the caterpillar population skyrocketed, burrowing deeper into the rafters of the long houses and single homes, resulting in the collapse of the huts and exposure of the population to the elements before repairs.
The Dayak must of thought the end of the world was near, seeing cats drop out of the sky and houses collapsing. Oh, the evil WHO!
A Law of Unintended Consequences
DDT has now been discredited and is not used widely, if at all. The initial application of the chemical was intended for good effect and that was attained, yet the unintended consequences were disastrous for the Dayak, and, we know today, bad for many organisms in the food chain.
The correlation of DDT and the effects of wind farm construction occurs only at the juncture of unintended consequences. DDT has been completely taken out of most systemic plans for public health. Wind farms will remain and should remain. The West Cut Pond on Baird Hill will probably renew itself and ducks will arrive in October and not leave until March. In comparing the degree of damage by DDT and transmission line construction, there’s no balancing of the equation. Wind farms should stay. DDT needs to be tightly regulated.
In the beginning, the application of new technology usually promises much: efficiency, improvement of health and speed (automobile vs. horse and buggy). The continuing use of technology, however, reveals unintended consequences that may be destructive in a large sense (collapse of long houses) or small. The decision arises as to whether to keep the technology, drop it entirely or regulate its use.
In my yucca frame of mind, let’s keep parachuting cats to a minimum and be careful, very careful, about the destruction of water habitats.
1. See Harrison, Tom, 1965, “Operation Cat Drop,” Animals, 5:512-13 as quoted and utilized in the article, C. S. Holling and M. A. Goldberg, “Ecology and Planning,” pp. 78-93, in an anthology by Daniel G. Bates and Susan H. Lees (eds.), Contemporary Anthropology: An Anthology, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981.
A blog post similarly composed is Planninga from Nanninga that has a parachuting cat cartoon and commentary on unintended consequences.
See also “Parachuting Cats — A True Story.” The cartoon illustration in the post is from this article.
Malaria cases in the U. S. are minimal (1,200 cases a year), due to the previous use of DDT. Malaria, however, appears in central Mexico today and is gradually coming northward to the U. S. The application of some form of insecticide in the coming decades will be needed to eradicate the vector mosquito.