John Pastor

John Pastor

John Pastor is an ecologist and professor of biology at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, where his teaching and research focus on the natural history and ecology of northern ecosystems. Pastor is the author of Mathematical Ecology of Populations and Ecosystems, is co-editor of Large Mammalian Herbivores, Ecosystem Dynamics, and Conservation, and has authored or coauthored 22 book chapters and over 120 papers, mostly about the North Woods. He is co-chair of the Natural History Section of the Ecological Society of America.

Who Speaks for the Trees?

“I am the Lorax! I speak for the trees.

I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.”

Dr. Seuss


“I am the Lorax! I speak for the trees.

I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.”

Dr. Seuss


Does Nature have rights that courts of law must consider? If it does, who speaks for Nature in the courts? Recently, both India and New Zealand have responded to these questions by granting personhood status to three rivers, the Ganges and Yamuna in India and the Whanganui in New Zealand. Indigenous peoples in both countries argued that the wellbeing of both the rivers and the people are inseparably linked. Whatever happens to the rivers happens to the people, so if the people have standing in courts of law, so should the rivers.

These actions by the Indian and the New Zealand governments bring to fruition a proposal raised nearly 50 years ago, in 1972, by Christopher Stone in his influential book, Should Trees Have Standing?  (republished in 2010 by Oxford University Press). I was an undergraduate geology major at the time of its publication. While I didn’t become an environmental lawyer, this slim volume made me realize that deep social and legal reasoning are equally required to solve environmental problems as are the scientific approaches I was learning in my classes.

Under English and American common law, Stone explains, it is unthinkable for natural objects such as rivers or forests to have legal rights. First, natural objects do not have standing in courts of law: that is, they cannot bring a suit on their own behest. A downstream riparian landowner can bring suit against a polluter upstream, but that suit is brought on the landowner’s behest, not the damage to the river itself. Second, in making a decision on a suit, the court weighs the economic hardships of forcing the polluter to cease against the economic losses of the downstream riparian landowner. The damage to the river’s food web does not weigh in the balance. Finally, the beneficiary of a favorable decision is the downstream landowner, not the riverine food web. This landowner may choose to spend the monetary award from the polluter on restoring the river in the stretch flowing past his or her property, but is not obliged to. In summary, under common law, damage to natural objects has no meaning or standing in and of itself, but only in relation to the economic well-being of a group of citizens who have standing to bring the suit.  

The Ganges River near the Lakshman Jhula bridge in Rishikesh, India

Natural objects cannot speak for themselves. Instead, Stone suggests that a group of citizens be granted guardianship status over natural objects. In the case of the rivers in India and New Zealand, the Hindu and Maori peoples have been granted guardianship status over the rivers because their traditions state that the rivers are central to the peoples’ existence: damage to the river also constitutes damage to the people. The guardians in turn have a responsibility to ensure that monetary awards for lawsuits brought on behalf of the rivers are spent on the rivers themselves. Finally, the guardians have the responsibility of monitoring the health and well-being of the rivers. These decisions of the Indian and the New Zealand courts go far beyond the status of natural objects in common law.

Giving legal rights to natural objects is unthinkable for many people.  It will remain unthinkable until they value natural ecosystems exclusive of their roles as suppliers of resources and services for economic well-being. It is hard to value a natural ecosystem or a landscape for itself until we think it is worthy of rights. The decisions of the courts in India and in New Zealand are attempts to break this vicious circle. Because of these decisions, we may be on our way to a heightened empathy with natural landscapes and a deeper understanding of our relation to them.

I thank my grandson for help with the Lorax quote.

Photo credit: Thomas Lefebvre

What should a drunken moose eat?

John Pastor, author of What Should a Clever Moose Eat? reflects on the question: What should a drunken moose eat? 

Red, ripe berries and fruits, such as those of mountain ash, cranberries, hawthorns, and apples, are a sure sign of a bountiful harvest at the end of summer, but after a few freezes in autumn these fruits can become deadly to wildlife. The cells of the fruits are broken open as ice crystals form, then melt, then form and melt again during cycles of freezing and thawing. The glucose and other sugars they contain are then released to natural populations of yeasts on the fruit surfaces, which ferment the sugars to ethanol, much like what happens to grapes when they are first crushed to make wine.

Quite often in late September or October, after the first hard frost, I’ve seen flocks of cedar waxwings and robins become inebriated after eating mountain ash berries. Recently, there have been several reports of moose that apparently became drunk after eating too many fermented crabapples in Alaska and piles of fermenting apples in Sweden. Birds weigh only a few ounces, so it shouldn’t take much ethanol to make them drunk. Moose, on the other hand, weigh between 500 and 1200 pounds, so it would take a lot of hard cider to get them inebriated. Petter Kjellander, Professor at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, thinks that it is not possible for a moose to eat enough fermented fruit in one sitting to make it drunk. The moose’s rumen can hold only so much fermented apple mash before it must stop eating and chew its cud. This load of fermented apples probably does not contain enough alcohol to induce inebriation in a large moose, and the three hours it takes to empty a moose’s rumen should be sufficient to cleanse its system of the ingested alcohol. On the other hand, perhaps some moose, like some people, are genetically disposed to an intolerance of alcohol, and so only a small amount might get them intoxicated. The answer to this problem will likely tell us something new about the physiology of moose.

Illustration by Laurie Mazur
Illustration Credit: Laurie Mazur

We have peculiar tastes in foods when we sit at a bar too long – witness the varieties of pickled things in typical bar food. Might a drunken moose also have the same tastes? After the yeasts create the ethanol, bacteria turn some of it into acetic acid, otherwise known as vinegar, so apples, crabapples, and berries become pickled while they ferment. Perhaps the combination of fermented and pickled apples stimulates the moose to keep eating far beyond what is good for it.

Salted nuts, chips, and popcorn are ubiquitous wherever alcohol is served, whether in bars or at a Super Bowl party. Do moose have a craving for salt when eating fermented fruit and if so, where can a moose get it? Gary Belovsky and Peter Jordan found that aquatic plants are a major source of salt for many moose in summer and perhaps in early fall when fruits in the uplands are starting to ferment. But once the ponds freeze in late fall, aquatic plants are no longer available. Then, moose are often seen licking the gravel on the sides of roads, presumably for the salt put down by transportation departments to melt the ice. A drunken moose on the side of the road is potentially a great danger to motorists, so beware if you are driving in moose country during late autumn!

And what should a moose do about the hangover the morning after a fermented fruit binge? We can go to the drugstore and pick up some aspirin, but a moose can go to the original source of this universal painkiller. Aspirin is salicylic acid and was originally isolated from the bark of willow in the genus Salix, from which salicylic acid takes its name. Willow twigs are highly preferred foods of moose from fall to spring. By the end of winter, many willows along streams and in bogs look like someone went at them with a machete, but the many moose tracks in the snow tell us the real culprit. I’ve often thought that moose eat the willow bark to stave off the pain of cold weather or crusty snow slashing their shins raw. Perhaps some of these tracks were also made by moose who became drunk by eating berries of mountain ash along the streambank or fermented cranberries in the bog. If so, then the tracks of a drunken moose should wander erratically, like a drunk stumbling home after the bars close. If I snowshoe through a willow bog this winter, I’ll keep an eye out for tracks that may have been made by a stumbling moose. If there are browsed mountain ash berries nearby, then I may be on the track of a drunken moose coping with a hangover.

Photo Credit: Pexels

Island Press Holiday Gift Guide 2016

This holiday season, give the gift of an Island Press book. With a catalog of more than 1,000 books, we guarantee there's something for everyone on your shopping list. Check out our list of staff selections, and share your own ideas in the...

This holiday season, give the gift of an Island Press book. With a catalog of more than 1,000 books, we guarantee there's something for everyone on your shopping list. Check out our list of staff selections, and share your own ideas in the comments below. 

For the OUTDOORSPERSON in your life:

Water is for Fighting Over by John Fleck | An Island Press book

Water is for Fighting Over...and Other Myths about Water in the West by John Fleck
Anyone who has ever rafted down the Colorado, spent a starlit night on its banks, or even drank from a faucet in the western US needs Water is for Fighting Over. Longtime journalist John Fleck will give the outdoors lover in your life a new appreciation for this amazing river and the people who work to conserve it. This book is a gift of hope for the New Year.

Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man by Jason Mark
Do you constantly find your friend waxing poetic about their camping tales and their intimate connection to the peaceful, yet mysterious powers of nature? Sounds like they will relate to Jason Mark’s tales of his expeditions across a multitude of American landscapes, as told in Satellites in the High Country. More than a collection of stories, this narrative demonstrates the power of nature’s wildness and explores what the concept of wild has come to mean in this Human Age.

What Should a Clever Moose Eat?: Natural History, Ecology, and the North Woods by John Pastor
Is the outdoorsperson in your life all dressed up in boots, parka, and backpack with nowhere to go? Looking for meaning in another titanium French press coffeemaker for the camp stove? What Should a Clever Moose Eat leaves the technogadgets behind and reminds us that all we really need to bring to the woods when we venture out is a curious mind and the ability to ask a good question about the natural world around us. Such as, why do leaves die? What do pine cones have to do with the shape of a bird’s beak? And, how are blowflies important to skunk cabbage? A few quality hours among its pages will equip your outdoor enthusiast to venture forth and view nature with new appreciation, whether in the North Woods with ecologist John Pastor or a natural ecosystem closer to home.

Also consider: River Notes by Wade Davis, Naturalist by E.O. Wilson

For the CLIMATE DENIER in your life:

Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change by Yoram Bauman
This holiday season, give your favorite climate-denier a passive aggressive “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” with The Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change featuring self –described Stand-up Economist Yoram Bauman and award-winning illustrator Grady Klein. Give the gift of fun, entertaining basic understanding of what is, undeniably and not up for subjective debate, scientific fact!

Also consider: Heatstroke by Anthony Barnosky, Straight Up by Joseph Romm

For the HEALTH NUT in your life:

Unnatural Selection: How We Are Changing Life, Gene by Gene by Emily Monosson
Give the health nut in your life the gift of understanding with Unnatural Selection. Your friends and family will discover how chemicals are changing life on earth and how we can protect it. Plus, they’ll read fascinating stories about the search for a universal vaccine, the attack of relentless bedbugs, and a miracle cancer drug that saved a young father’s life.

Also consider: Toms River by Dan Fagin, Roads Were Not Built for Cars by Carlton Reid, 

For the ADVOCATE in your life:

Prospects for Resilience: Insights from New York City's Jamaica Bay by Sanderson, et. al
Need an antidote to the doom and gloom? Stressed-out environmental advocates will appreciate Prospects for Resilience: Insights from New York City's Jamaica Bay. It’s a deep dive into one of the most important questions of our time: how can we create cities where people and nature  thrive together? Prospects for Resilience showcases successful efforts to restore New York’s much abused Jamaica Bay, but its lessons apply to any communities seeking to become more resilient in a turbulent world.

Ecological Economics by Josh Farley and Herman Daly
Blow the mind of the advocate in your life with a copy of Ecological Economics by the godfather of ecological economics, Herman Daly, and Josh Farley. In plain, and sometimes humorous English, they’ll come to understand how our current economic system does not play by the same laws that govern nearly every other system known to humankind—that is, the laws of thermodynamics. Given recent financial and political events, there’s a message of hope within the book as it lays out specific policy and social change frameworks.

Also consider: Tactical Urbanism by Mike Lydon, Cooler Smarter by The Union of Concerned Scientists

For the CRAZY CAT PERSON in your life:

An Indomitable Beast: The Remarkable Journey of the Jaguar by Alan Rabinowitz
The cat lovers in your life will lose themselves in An Indomitable Beast, an illuminating story about the journey of the jaguar. This is the perfect book for any of your feline loving friends, whether they want to pursue adventure with the big cats of the wild, or stay home with a book and cup of tea.

Also consider: The Carnivore Way by Cristina Eisenberg, Jaguar by Alan Rabinowitz 

For the GARDENER in your life:

Wild by Design: Strategies for Creating Life-Enhancing Landscapes by Margie Ruddick
Give your favorite gardener an antidote to the winter blues. The lush photographs of Wild by Design, and inspirational advice on cultivating landscapes in tune with nature, transport readers to spectacular parks, gardens, and far-flung forests. This book is guaranteed to be well-thumbed and underlined by the time spring planting season arrives!

Also consider: Brilliant Green by Stefano Mancuso, Principles of Ecological Landscape Design, Travis Beck

For the STUBBORN RELATIVE in your life:

Common Ground on Hostile Turf: Stories from an Environmental Mediator by Lucy Moore
For the person keeping the peace in your family this holiday season, the perfect gift is Common Ground on Hostile Turf, an inspiring how to guide demonstrating it is possible to bring vastly different views together. This book gives lessons learned on setting down at the table with the most diverse set of players and the journey they take to find common grounds and results. If your holiday dinner needs some mediation, look to the advice of author Lucy Moore.

Also consider: Communication Skills for Conservation Professionals by Susan Jacobson, Communicating Nature by Julia Corbett

For the HISTORY BUFF in your life: 

The Past and Future City: How Historic Preservation is Reviving America's Communities by Stephanie Meeks with Kevin C. Murphy
When it comes to the the future of our cities, the secret to urban revival lies in our past. Tickle the fancy of your favorite history buff by sharing The Past and Future City, which takes readers on a journey through our country's historic spaces to explain why preservation is important for all communities. With passion and expert insight, this book shows how historic spaces explain our past and serve as the foundation of our future.

Also consider: The Forgotten Founders by Stewart Udall, Aldo Leopold's Odyssey, Tenth Anniversary Edition by Julianne Lutz Warren

For the BUSINESS PERSON in your life:

Nature's Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature by Mark Tercek
For the aspiring CEO in your life who drools at phrases like "rates of return" and "investment," share the gift of Nature's Fortune, an essential guide to the world's economic (and environmental) well-being.

Also consider: Corporation 2020 by Pavan Sukhdev, Resilient by Design by Joseph Fiksel