The art of adaptation


“Life finds a way,” Michael Crichton wrote in his 1990 novel Jurassic Park. He was imagining how resurrected dinosaurs, supposedly sterile, could start breeding on their own, but the quote expresses a fundamental truth. As the planet’s climate changes, life changes with it. The rapidly warming Arctic has forced polar bears, which normally hunt seals, to linger much longer on land, waiting for winter sea ice to form. The bears have found new food sources, though, like geese, eggs and caribou. And they’ve found new mates: Scientists have documented “grolar” or “pizzly” bears — a cross between polar and grizzly bears. In the Northwest, researchers have discovered a population of pikas, a rabbit-like alpine creature built for deep cold, living in the Columbia River Gorge. They’re adapting to the much lower, warmer surroundings by eating a lot of moss — an abundant food that keeps them from having to spend too much time in the hot sun looking for dinner.

Jodi Peterson, managing editor

Humans adapt to change as well, of course, but we’re complex and messy creatures whose efforts far exceed the basics required to deal with warmer temperatures and different foods. And that’s the topic of this year’s special Books and Essays issue — adaptation. Most Westerners have come here from somewhere else, transplanting ourselves and trying hard to reshape the land to fulfill our dreams. And often, the land strenuously rejects our attempts — our new homes get buried in mudslides, our beautiful orchards dry up. Yet we keep trying, even as we slowly acknowledge that climate change will require much greater effort, adaptation of a kind that we can’t really begin to imagine.

Author Jared Farmer has crafted an essay about his father, a Californian who tried to adapt to Utah but never quite got used to the Mormon culture or the desert climate. English professor John Calderazzo relates how climate change transformed him from lone-ranger writer to science communicator, as he began bringing together researchers from across all academic disciplines to explain the issues to students and the public. And Arizona researcher and writer Rafael de Grenade considers how people living in arid parts of the West will have to learn to adjust to even drier conditions. This special issue also includes interviews and profiles of other Western writers, reviews of some great new books, and a few other surprises.

High Country News has often written about the ways our world is changing and the many problems we’re likely to face in the process. But this special issue provides a slightly more optimistic slant: Yes, the West may become a very different place, but both human and non-human Westerners are adaptable and resilient, and somehow, like Crichton’s dinosaurs, most of us are pretty good at finding a way. 

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