The Voice of the Wilderness Fades Away
By Farwell Forrest
August 28, 2001
Judging from the pages of the outdoor
catalogs, the common loon is second only to the gray wolf as a symbol of
North America's northern wilderness. It's easy to see why. The loon is a
mighty impressive bird. When one was brought to eighteenth-century
British naturalist Gilbert White, he described it as "incomparably
adapted to its mode of life," and he was right. The loon is a
diveran underwater fish-hunterand, as White himself wrote,
"every part and proportion" of the bird is adapted to this end:
The head is sharp, and smaller than the part of the neck adjoining, in
order that it may pierce the water; the wings are placed forward and out
of the center of gravity
; the thighs quite at the podex [rump], in
order to facilitate diving; and the legs are flat, and as sharp backwards
almost as the edge of a knife, that in striking they may easily cut the
water; while the feet are palmated and broad for swimming, yet so folded
up when advanced forward to take a fresh stroke, as to be full as narrow
as the shank.
In fact, so obvious is the loon's adaptation to its way of life, that
it's known as the great northern diver in Europe. Since "common loons"
are neither common nor loony, this seems to be the better name by far.
Still, it's easy to see how the loon got its name. Even if folks
visiting canoe country never see one of these big birds in the distance,
most will hear its call. Usually described as "haunting" or "chilling,"
the loon's cry is unmistakable. One writer describes it as "the voice of
the wilderness." Often heard by night, echoing from some far-off pond or
bay, the call is varied and complex. Sometimes it's simply a prolonged
wail. At other times, it's a tremulous, vibrato "laugh," and on still
other occasions, an ululating yodel. Each call conveys a specific
meaning. In wailing, a loon resembles an anxious mother, searching for a
missing child. "Where are you?" the loon cries, and then she pauses,
hoping to hear a reply. The yodel, by contrast, is a sort of business
cardor challenge, come to that. "Here I am!" a yodeling loon says.
"This is my place!" But it's the tremolo that gets the most
attention. Frequently likened to maniacal laughter, it's both a shout of
alarm and a warning of danger. "Look out! Look out!" it cries. "Danger!
Nowadays, on many busy northern waters, the tremolo's the call that's
heard most often. Jet-skis, water-ski tow-boats, even over-curious
canoeists and kayakersall of these disturb loons, driving them from
their nests and interrupting their feeding. Again and again, their
frantic, humorless laughter echoes over the water: "Danger! Danger!"
Their cry rings out, to be taken up and passed on from one body of water
to the next, spreading like a ripple in a disturbed pool, and continuing
long after the original threat has passed.
During all this time, the essential business of feeding and raising
young is set aside. The effects aren't hard to guess. In many places,
loons are failing to raise healthy chicks. Sometimes the adults
themselves die, succumbing to exhaustion, illness, or perhapswho
can really know?despair.
As bad as this is, though, it's not the only bad news. More and more
often, along a great swathe of North America from New York's Adirondacks
to the Maritime Provinces of Canada, loons are weakening and dying even
on undisturbed, protected waters. Once superb aquatic hunters, they now
dive fruitlessly, surfacing again and again with empty beaks. They starve
to death in waters teeming with fish.
Or, having incubated a brace of eggs successfully, apparently-healthy
parents then "forget" to feed their newly-hatched young, or feed them
only insects, newts, and the like, rather than the fish that the chicks
must have if they are to survive. The result is as predictable as it is
disheartening. Instead of growing bigger and stronger with every passing
day, the chicks slowly waste away and die.
What's going wrong? The answer's almost certainly not a simple one,
but it now looks as if the most important clue can be found in a rather
unlikely place: an industrial city on the island of Kyushu, Japan. That
city's name? Minamata.
Minamata is a coastal town and a seaport. Local fish and shellfish
have long found their way into the city's markets, and from there onto
the tables of city residents. In the lean years immediately following the
Second World War, there was very little food in Japanese households, and
pet food was almost unknown. So Minamata's cats ate table scraps. More
often than not, those scraps were bits of fish.
All was well at first. Japan and Minamata began the long struggle back
to normalcy after the nightmare of war. Then, in the early 1950s,
Minamata's cats suddenly began to act strangely. Once swift and graceful,
they began to stagger. Their limbs shook. They lurched uncontrollably
from side to side, tripping themselves up and bumping into things. And
their keen eyes dimmed, too. Cats that once delighted in batting dangled
toys abouta small ball on a string, say, or a roughly-tied wad of
clothnow lost all interest in them, unable to follow the motions of
the swinging baubles. Some cats even had trouble finding their food when
it was placed in front of them.
Clearly something was going badly wrong. Suspicion initially fell on
infectious encephalitis, but none could be demonstrated, and chemical
poisoning seemed the next most likely culprit. Then the first human cases
appeared. As had been the case with Minamata's cats, people now found
that their limbs were no longer obedient servants to their will. Their
legs trembled. They stumbled and fell. Worse yet, their field of vision
darkened and shrank. In time, the world seen through their eyes collapsed
to a single, dimly-lit pin-hole.
There was still worse to come. Newborn childreneven some born to
apparently healthy womenmysteriously failed to thrive. Their arms
and legs moved in jerky, uncoordinated rhythms. They learned slowly. No
treatment proved of any use. The effects of what was now being called
"Minamata disease" were apparently irreversible. Medicine could offer no
cure, only palliative care.
The search for the cause continued, and twelve years after the first
cases were identified, a villain was named. It was methylmercury, a
biologically-active form of the familiar silvery metal. Minamata disease
was methylmercury poisoning. But where had the methylmercury come from?
That question was more easily answered. An industrial plant discharged
its wastewater into Minamata Bay. The wastewater contained both
methylmercury and metallic mercury. Bacteria in the bay's sediments then
converted the metallic mercury into still more methylmercury, adding to
the bay's toxic burden. Over time, as myriads of bottom-feeding organisms
were themselves eaten, methylmercury moved steadily up the food-chain,
ultimately contaminating the flesh of the fish and shellfish that made up
such a large part of the local diet. And the more fish that people (or
cats) ate, the more of the poisonous methylmercury they ingested.
In 1966, the discharge of methylmercury into Minamata Bay was stopped,
but by that time thousands of men, women and children had suffered
irreversible brain damage. Thanks to good nursing and the care lavished
on them by loving families, many are still alive today.
By now, you're probably wondering what connection can possibly exist
between the tragedy of Minamata and the troubles of North America's
loons. Surely there aren't any industrial plants dumping mercury into
American lakes, are there? Well, sadly, that's not quite true, though the
story's a little more complicated than was the case in Minamata.
Coal-fired power-generating plants in the Midwest discharge large
quantities of mercury into the air. The EPA estimates that some 40 tons
go up in smoke every year in the United States alone. And what goes up
must come down, washed out of the sky by rain. It's one result of the hydrologic
cycle, but this time the rain does more than replenish lakes and
rivers. Each storm that breaks over the northeastern United States and
Canada drops mercury on both land and water.
Nor is this the end of the tale. The same power-generating plants that
send mercury up their stacks also belch forth great quantities of sulfur
oxides. When these wash out of the clouds over the Northeast, they fall
as "acid rain." Since mercury is a common trace element in much of the
country rock in eastern North America, and since acid rain leaches this
mercury out of the rock, washing it away into the nearest body of water
or aquifer, even the scenery in canoe country adds to the toxic assault
on eastern lakes and ponds.
I'm sure I don't have to spell the rest out. The same bacteria that
converted mercury to methylmercury in Minamata Bay are at work throughout
the northeastern United States and Canada, busily transmuting inorganic
mercury from midwestern power-generating plants into a
biologically-active form. Once that process is complete, the
methylmercury moves up the food-chain and into the fishand these
fish are then eaten by loons.
Loons are fish-hunters. They depend on sharp eyes and powerful,
well-coordinated muscles for their survival. If a loon's vision dims or
if her muscles cease to obey the commands of her brain, she and her
chicks will starve. This is already happening throughout the Northeast.
Mercury has been found in the livers of more than three-quarters of the
loons autopsied by the New York State Department of Environmental
Conservation in recent years. To the east, in Maine's inland waters, loon
chicks are now regularly starving to death, despite their parents' best
efforts to feed them. Still farther east, in the Canadian Maritime
Provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, loons have for all intents
and purposes stopped reproducing. When the last of the current generation
dies, the summer waters of the Maritimes will be silent, their stillness
broken only by the rumble and chirp of frogs and the whine of jet-skis.
This need not have happened, of course. Federal rules to curtail
power-plant emissions have been in the air for some time, but action has
been repeatedly postponed. Regulations are currently scheduled to take
effect in three years' time. Will this be enough, orin the present
era of smaller government at any pricewill the new regulations even
be enforced? I don't know.
There's one more thing to bear in mind. Remember Minamata's cats? They
were the first victims of methylmercury poisoning, but they certainly
weren't the last. So the next time you hear a far-off loon's tremolo call
echoing over the water"Look out! Danger! Danger!"pay close
attention. Not only could it be the last chance you'll ever get to hear
this voice of the wilderness, but it's just possible that the loon is
talking to you. Perhaps he's trying to tell all of us something,
in fact. And maybe it's time we started listening.
Copyright © 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights