by Robert Krulwich
November 30, 2012
We'll start in a cornfield - we'll call it an Iowa cornfield in late
summer - on a beautiful day. The corn is high. The air is
There's just one thing missing - and
it's a big thing... a very big thing, but I won't tell you what, not
Instead, let's take a detour. We'll be back to the cornfield in a
minute, but just to make things interesting, I'm going to leap
halfway around the world to a public park near Cape Town, South
Africa, where you will notice a cube, a metal cube, lying there in
Sifting through samples within the cube, photographer David
Littschwager counted 90 separate species, including 25 types of
plants just on the soil surface, along with some 200 seeds
representing at least five of those species.
That cube was put there by David Liittschwager, a portrait
photographer, who spent a few years traveling the world, dropping
one-cubic-foot metal frames into gardens, streams, parks, forests,
oceans, and then photographing whatever, or whoever came through.
Beetles, crickets, fish, spiders, worms,
birds - anything big enough to be seen by the naked eye he tried to
capture and photograph.
Here's what he found after 24 hours in
his Cape Town cube:
These 113 creatures observed, and then photographed,
include over 100
species of plants and animals that use one cubic foot
of this highly
diverse shrub land over the course of a normal day
Fynbos, Table Mountain, South Africa.
There were 30 different plants in that one square foot of grass, and
roughly 70 different insects.
And the coolest part, said a researcher
the Guardian in Britain,
"If we picked the cube up and walked 10
feet, we could get as much as 50 percent difference in plant species
we encountered. If we moved it uphill, we might find
none of the species."
Populations changed drastically only a few
feet away - and that's not counting the fungi, microbes, and the
itsy-bitsies that Liittschwager and his team couldn't see.
Another example: Here's a cube placed 100 feet off the ground, in
the upper branches of a Strangler fig tree in Costa Rica. We're up
in the air here, looking down into a valley.
stout limb of a strangler fig a hundred feet
up in the canopy of
the Monteverde cloud forest in Costa Rica,
a luxuriant garden
To survey this
day and night, and the team recorded
24 plant species and
more than 500 insects
species within the cube's green borders.
What's up? More than 150 different plants and animals live in or
passed through that one square foot of tree: birds, beetles, flies,
moths, bugs, bugs, then more bugs...
Part of the
contents of One Cubic Foot,
more than 150
different kinds of plants and animals were found
in the Monteverde
cube over 100 feet up in the canopy of
a Strangler Fig Tree
Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, Costa Rica.
E.O. Wilson, the Harvard biologist, in his introduction to
David Liittschwager's book of these photographs, says that it's
usually big animals that catch our attention. But if we get down on
our knees and examine any small patch of ground,
"gradually the smaller inhabitants,
far more numerous, begin to eclipse them."
They are the critters that create and
aerate the soil, that pollinate, that remove the clutter. And there
are lots and lots and lots of them.
Getting Back To The
Which brings me back to Iowa, where my NPR colleague, commentator
and science writer Craig Childs, decided to have a little adventure.
As he tells it in
his new book, he
recruited a friend, Angus, and together they agreed to spend two
nights and three days ("We'll call it a long weekend") smack in the
middle of a 600-acre farm in
Their plan was to settle in amongst the
stalks (there are an "estimated three trillion" of them in Iowa) to
see what's living there, other than corn. In other words, a
Cornfields, however, are not like national parks or virgin forests.
Corn farmers champion corn. Anything that might eat corn, hurt corn,
bother corn, is killed. Their corn is bred to fight pests. The
ground is sprayed. The stalks are sprayed again.
So, like David, Craig wondered,
will I find?"
Heather Nemec /iStockphoto
The answer amazed me. He found almost nothing.
"I listened and heard nothing, no
bird, no click of insect."
There were no bees. The air, the ground,
seemed vacant. He found one ant,
"so small you couldn't pin it to a
A little later, crawling to a different
row, he found one mushroom,
"the size of an apple seed." (A relative
of the one pictured below.)
Then, later, a cobweb spider eating a
crane fly (only one). A single red mite "the size of a dust mote
hurrying across the barren earth," some grasshoppers, and that's it.
Though he crawled and crawled, he found nothing else.
"It felt like another planet
entirely," he said, a world denuded.
Organisms found in
and Iowa cornfield:
an ant, one mushroom,
a cobweb spider,
a half eaten crane
fly, a red mite and some grasshoppers.
Illustration by NPR
Yet, 100 years ago, these same fields, these prairies, were home to
300 species of plants, 60 mammals, 300 birds, hundreds and hundreds
This soil was the richest, the loamiest
in the state. And now, in these patches, there is almost literally
nothing but one kind of living thing. We've erased everything else.
We need to feed our planet, of course. But we also need the teeny
creatures that drive all life on earth. There's something strange
about a farm that intentionally creates a biological desert to
produce food for one species: us.
It's efficient, yes. But it's so
efficient that the ants are missing, the bees are missing, and even
the birds stay away.
Something's not right here.
Our cornfields are too quiet...