Natural Resilience

If you want to destroy a barn,” a farmer once told me, “cut an eighteen-inch-square hole in the roof. Then stand back.”

Chris Riddle, quoted in The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

flower in rockAsk any farmer what happens to his fields when they lie fallow for a year or two. He’ll tell you that it starts going wild again. Over time, the weeds and woody plants move back in, along with undesirable insects and critters. It’ll take a lot of work to beat nature back down again.

That’s pretty much what we humans do. We take a place and try to make it different, something just for us, something un-natural. However, when we slack off in our efforts, nature finds a way back in.

Living in an old neighborhood, I have had plenty of chances to see nature’s resilience. The part of town I live in has been developed for about 150 years, but any land left vacant or untended quickly begins to revert. Sometimes I think the reversion is more attractive than the original development, but it is often a messy process. Towns and cities have nuisance ordinances that address places where the weeds have gone wild. Undesirable critters that frequent neighborhoods may be trapped and relocated. Drainages are shaped and directed to fit into our uses, although sometimes nature lets us know that she’s in charge, not us.

I am captivated by old buildings left untended. There is the usual disrepair and decay of the structure, but the reversion to a natural state is always interesting. The old log cabin with the caved-in roof is sprouting pine trees that may be 100 years old. Nooks and crannies have become the homes for rodents and insects, and birds nest in the rafters, sharing space with a few errant bats. A feral rose or lilac may still grace the long-gone threshold.

As an engineer, I’ve visited quite a few abandoned mine and industrial sites. I find it compelling to imagine what it was like when it was active. Now, moss and grasses move in pretty quickly. Birds seek shelter, build nests and leave their residue as food for insects and plants. Rodents are drawn to plant life and whatever safety can be found among the remains of the structure and equipment, and the snakes follow the rodents. Rain and snow leaks in and creates breeding places for insects and water holes for small creatures. The moisture speeds up the corrosion, rotting of wood and rusting of metal. Soft wood attracts fungi, termites or other borers, and subsequent slumping of the structure lets in more precipitation.

Freeze-thaw cycles work on concrete walls and floors, just as they do on rocks; moisture freezes and the ice expands any cracks. Cracks and seams in the asphalt or concrete concentrate moisture and provides a foothold for plants to slowly expand the openings to allow more water and growth. Winds push at the walls and edges, and pull at anything loose so that over time, the pieces tear away letting more wind and moisture into the structure.

Mine spoils and waste dumps seem to be the last places to revert back, depending on the nastiness of the material. We seem to do a better job these days of getting rid of the bad stuff, regulations drive better management and clean-up than in the old days, but there are still places where contamination is unchecked. Even there, though, it seems that nature has a way of taking hold. In fact, some of the clean-up methods are actually just the acceleration of natural processes.

As discussed in The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, almost any material can be broken down, given the right natural conditions and time. Concrete and asphalt degrade, steel rusts, other metals corrode, and wood and fabric rots. Plastic seems to be the one enduring material, but luckily it wasn’t widely introduced until after WWII. I have found barely recognizable metal tools buried in my garden, lost for decades. I wonder how long it would have taken before they became just an unidentifiable lump.

There are lots of irrigation ditches crossing the area where I live. Half the year they carry water from the streams coming out of the mountains to the flat land where fields exist and reservoirs can hold the water until it is needed. These ditches create their own local ecosystems, in part because they leak so badly. The older ditches are lined with cottonwoods, various shrubs and other water-loving plants. However, turn off the water, as we’ve done here lately, and a change begins. The marshy cattails are the first to disappear, then the shrubs, and at last the old cottonwoods die away. Their skeletons remain for years, a line of white spires slowly breaking and falling back to the earth.

There are pictures of my town from the mid-1800’s showing a line of vegetation along the creek, but bare plains everywhere else. Now my town is a Tree City and the same shot reveals a thick tree canopy throughout. We have taken this grassy, semi-arid valley and filled it with our dream of homes with fruit and shade trees, flowering gardens, and lush lawns. (Is there a reason you don’t want to identify golden and Clear Creek?)

Nature, but not natural.

Where do we draw the line? Major federal and state projects are required to evaluate their impacts on the natural environment. We try to manage the changes we impose, and sometimes we do it in a thoughtful, effective manner. We fret about permanence, using the time scale suited to our own lives. But the nature we are challenging uses a different time scale, one that stretches for multiple generations and ages.

The one constant is change. We shift our uses, our patterns and our places. Nature is constantly trying to reassert itself, not necessarily back to what it was, but what it is driven to be.

Instead of trying to compete with nature, we need to find ways to work with it. Any human space benefits from a touch of nature, and nature can benefit from our indulgence. Where our houses are close together, I wanted to create a row of shrubs around my fence line to afford me some privacy. I used cuttings from the profligate native chokecherry and lilac already well established in the yard to fill in the gaps. They have thrived without much care or management, and actually provide food and cover for birds, as well as the border I wanted.

Nature wants to come in, wants to live long and prosper (as we all do, including Vulcans). If nature can adapt to us, maybe we should work a little harder at adapting to it. Our common goal is survival, and given the changes we are facing, humans are going to need all the help we can get.

Can’t we all just get along?

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