06/06/2014 05:02 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 01:04 EDT

Making Biodiversity Personal

Every one knows about the importance of biodiversity, but how many of us have a one-to-one personal experience with a rare species? For myself, like most readers I suspect, biodiversity was a global issue that didn't appear to enter my life apart from reading about it. All of us know it's important but we don't encounter it emotively. It remains a concept or a value.

Mountains are home to approximately one-quarter of the planet's biodiversity and are often rich in endemic species -- that is animals and plants that can't be found elsewhere. Just consider that mountains contain about one-third of all plant species on the planet and they contain half of the world's biodiversity hot spots. According to the FAO two-thirds of all Biosphere Reserves are located fully or partially in mountains.

Mountains create this huge diversity of habitats within a small distance since they offer a large range of altitudinal gradients, differentiated topography, soils and exposure to sunlight. In fact many foods such as wheat and potatoes originated in mountain areas. Given that mountains are such biodiversity hot spots, it was inevitable I would stumble into something rare on my rambles.

Not being a plant person per say, I wouldn't have noticed the tree except that I was hungry. Fruit had fallen at its base. The fruit looked like a russet apple but smaller. But the surprise hit when I bit in. The taste was pure pear - with a crisp astringency of a wild apple. In fact it was like an essence of pear that was so strong it was novel. This was the first time in adult life I tasted a 'new' fruit; a pear/apple. Speaking with local people below in the mountain hamlet of Isola (856 meters) I was told this fruit was the original pear from which our domesticated ones were bred, and that only three or four such trees exist in the Sibillini Mountains, that is within an area of 714 None are believed to have endured outside the mountains due to agriculture and development. I retained the core of the fruit in my pocket and so determined to plant the seeds.

The genetic resources of wild pear are 'seriously endangered' I discovered. The German centres Institut für Forstgenetik und Forstpflanzenzüchtung, Forschungsinstitut Pro Arbore and Forstliche Versuchsanstalt, have written a report on the wild pear stating that the trees are rare. Natural regeneration is unlikely and if it occurs, it is endangered by grazing; or by over hunting because animals that eat the fruit and defecate it are increasingly few. Unlike the wild apple, the wild pear has retained genetic purity because it is incompatible with the domesticated pear. The wild pear has grown for almost 3000 years in Europe with only slight mutations or changes within its family, but its days are now numbered.

Considering I'm a poor gardener I was amazed to see four sprouts this spring. Tomorrow I'm planting the little 'trees'. An anonymous global issue turned into an invigorating personal experience. Now it's got meaning I want to see what else I can do for rare trees, as well as looking forward to eating these delicious, unusual fruits.

Being in mountains can be a wonderful introduction to interacting with biodiversity in a more intense, personal way. Nature Conservancy Canada or the Mountain Forum for a global view, offer projects you can get involved in.