To celebrate San Francisco's Month of Climate Action, Friends has an exclusive interview with author Mary Ellen Hannibal about San Francisco, Covid-19, and citizen science. Hannibal is an award-winning author and journalist. Her most recent book, Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction, was named one of the best titles of 2016 by the San Francisco Chronicle. Reporting deeply, Hannibal digs into the origins of today's tech-savvy citizen science movement – tracing it back through centuries of amateur observations by writers and naturalists. Enjoy this interview!
The Coronavirus is top on everyone's mind, what do you think about it?
The reason we have this pandemic is because of habitat destruction around the world. We're taking viruses out of their native ecosystems, the plants and animals that have co-evolved to not be affected by them, and suddenly it finds a new host in humans.
It's a real wakeup call on why we need to stop this mass extinction that's going on, and we need to get much better information on where these plants and animals are. The way we do that is by citizen science.
Yes, citizens science! I love the iNaturalist app.
iNaturalist is amazing. It's fantastic, we can use it today to take action. Once it gets people out and to observe what's outside, that's the first step.
What has been your interaction with the Wallace Stegner Environmental Center at the San Francisco Public Library?
I love the Stegner center; it's a valuable resource. When I was writing The Spine of the Continent that came out in 2012, the Stegner librarian was very helpful. I needed to find government documents having to do with livestock regulation and transportation regulation around the environment. The center was a fantastic resource for me, not only what Stegner had and its collection but the Librarian knowing where to find relevant information in the government collections. I have to say, a writer like me cannot do this work without a good library, and the San Francisco Public Library is such a library. Having a specific collection around the environment is really helpful, and I want it to grow more and more.
You also worked with the Stegner Center for a map of the city?
Yes, the current Stegner Librarian, Kelley Trahan, and I were on a team on making a map of nature in the city. She was super helpful, and this map is available to purchase from the nonprofit, Nature in The City. It's a wonderful resource. I wrote it, Jane Kim illustrated it, and the Academy of Science and The Exploratorium were also involved. The Library was a great resource because I had to research a lot of history of the land and land-use changes as the map includes an understanding of those impacts on species that live on that land. I researched how these systems are constructed and how they unravel, and how we can reconstruct them in some places.
The role of nature in our is more and more important, partly because we have a lot of people who care. People can plant where they live, native plants, and it can become refugia (an area that allows a species to evade extinction). Your windowsill can provide resources for hummingbirds and bees and butterflies. If you give them a chance to get their resources, you're supporting them in their life histories.
Thoughts on Wallace Stegner, the person?
Wallace Stegner is a legendary, special writer who wrote a couple of classic novels, Angle of Repose and Crossing to Safety. He also wrote an amazingly important book called Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, about the first surveyor who mapped the American West in the 1800s. He said back then that we shouldn't build out West because of the water. Everyone ignored him, but he was completely right.
It's wonderful that the Library is named for him; he is really someone to know. He has become kind of a symbol of the literary West. He was never reviewed in the New York Times but won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, so he's a figure who stands for how the East Coast intelligentsia never understands the West.
And your Ted talk comes out on April 1?
Yes, I focus on monarch butterflies, which is appropriate for the San Francisco Bay Area because we are one of the sites where we see a vast decline in monarch butterflies. I don't talk about the virus because it was filmed in December, but I do talk about extinction and what we can do.
You can use iNaturalist very easily, very close to home, and while keeping social distance. Discover your city, discover your block, discover your backyard, discover the park. There is nature everywhere. Look at iNaturalist on your desktop, zero in on where you live. I always want to see butterflies. So I go onto the app and see where people saw butterflies yesterday, because they are probably there today. I can go and see them myself.
Citizen Science Resources:
SciStarter - scistarter.org
Journey North - journeynorth.org
iNaturalist - inaturalist.org
Xerces - xerces.org