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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Birth, extinction and life in color

Planting as a way to celebrate life.

Planting as a way to celebrate life. Credit: Alamy / Arletta Cwalina

It’s a good weekend to be planting.

Actually, it’s always a good weekend when you’re planting, but that’s especially true for this one, this year, imbued as it is with the themes of rebirth and deliverance.

As the compost is added and the trowel digs gently into the dirt, as the seeds are placed in the warming soil and covered, there is time to think and to observe.

Mostly, I find myself pondering renewal, and the way the cycle of life keeps turning. Baseball’s return is part of that. So is the weather, which grudgingly inches away from intolerable.

Color, too, is coming back. It’s been gray way too long. Around our house, the crocuses, daffodils and hyacinths are making their debuts. Forsythia buds are poised for their entrance.

The blue jays with their enlivening streaks across the yard have been doing the heavy color-lifting for a while. Now robins are adding their modest dab, and male goldfinches are molting, their brilliant yellow feathers beginning to emerge once again.

I’ve been working my way through old photos lately and I was struck by the number of pictures from decades of Easter egg hunts. There’s me and my siblings scrambling around, then all of our children, and more recently, the first of our children’s children. And I wonder whether part of what motivated all of that photo-taking were the welcome splashes of color — from the dresses and the hats and (in my case) the garish plaid pants, to the baskets and the pastel-hued straw and the vibrantly bright eggs.

The return of color makes me think of Joan Baez, who just released a new album. I was struck by the words her producer used in one interview to describe the singer’s awareness of the limitations of her 77-year-old voice. He said it was her “feeling out the colors she had on her palette.”

It was a reminder that the colors of sound are not forever, either.

Baez said the album would be her last. That followed news that this year, she will retire from touring, too. It was a moment of extreme poignancy for those of us who grew up with her, and who already were reeling from various sorts of retirement announcements from Elton John, Paul Simon, Neil Diamond, Ozzy Osbourne and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Diamonds and rust, as Baez once sang. The song conjured white clouds and brown leaves and eyes bluer than robin’s eggs.

The animal world has suffered losses, too. The recent death of Sudan, the world’s last male northern white rhino, leaves only two females, Sudan’s daughter and granddaughter, living in the same Kenya preserve he called home. There was nothing natural about the end of this subspecies. We humans hunted them to extinction. But now we’re trying to bring them back by combining banked sperm from other dead northern white rhinos with eggs extracted from the two females and planting the embryos in surrogate southern white rhinos, and by creating stem cells from frozen cultures from Sudan and others and growing those into eggs and sperm. The odds are dicey, but at least we’re trying.

And then I think about other conservation successes, like the black bears that recently returned to the Great Basin of Nevada after an 80-year absence and the baby ridley sea turtles that reappeared on a beach in Mumbai, India, after 20 years. And I balance that against the disturbing fact that our own species is well on its way to extinguishing more than half of the world’s species by the end of the century. And I realize that while the cycle of life keeps turning, rebirth and deliverance are not guaranteed.

And so I plant, not to defy the reality that things fade away, but to acknowledge our role in making sure that some things return.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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