Ecologists realized in the late 1970s that certain North American plants and trees lacked any associated creatures equipped to adequately harvest, eat, and disperse their considerable fruits and seeds. The desert gourd, pawpaw, honey locust, and osage orange are still waiting (about 13,000 years) for creatures like mastodons, giant sloths, and other behemoths to once more carry their fruits away, along with their encased inedible seeds, to be deposited in ripe new surroundings elsewhere.
These massive and hairy “ghosts of evolution” have cast a shadow on the continental ecology. How long have the trees known that their associates are gone, driven to extinction in all likelihood by the arrival of humans? You can only imagine those scenes now, and doing so conjures questions of other ghosts of the landscape, undiscovered or misunderstood.
I’ve been building nests for such imagined creatures, large flightless birds perhaps, which could have once inhabited the river valleys, stream corridors, and seashores I find myself wandering, where suitable nest-making materials abound near ghost groves of fruit-bearing shrubs. Each features a stone or stones found nearby in homage to the genius that bird eggs exhibit of mimicking their immediate surroundings when needed.
Equally possible is that these ephemeral structures will belong to the landscape’s future, the habitat of new creatures breathed into being after the era of humanity, or perhaps alongside it, once the current extinction crisis is halted and the wheels of evolution are set spinning freely once more to create new and equally elegant relationships like those of the lost Pleistocene partnerships.
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Header image by Erik Hoffner.