Messing with Nature

tree ringThe Naturalist’s Axiom: You can’t do just one thing.

Law of Successful Tinkering: Save all the parts.

Corollary: Save the instructions.

                                                  Roderick Nash

The brown head was just visible above the ripples in the water. We watched it cross the tank (what we called a farm pond) and disappear into the weeds at the far end.

“What was that?” I asked my dad.

“Nutria,” he replied, “they’re very damaging here.”

I knew a bit about muskrats and I’d seen beavers in beer ads and a Disney wildlife special, but I’d never heard of nutria. My dad explained that they were rodents from South America, and had been brought into the US to eat the duckweed that clogged up a lot of the tanks on farms and ranches. It turned out they didn’t eat much duckweed and they dug burrows in the earthen dams that weakened the dams and caused leaks — and sometimes collapse. The ranchers and farmers had unsuccessfully tried to eliminate them.

It’s a story repeated again and again. Whether it’s kudzu in the south or Asian Carp in the east we seem to act with little forethought. Somebody in the 19th century though it would be cool to introduce every bird species in Shakespeare’s works into the US, resulting in proliferation of the European Starling. House sparrows were also intentionally introduced, along with a whole list of other species that turned out to create unintended consequences, usually bad.

No doubt, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

I’d like to think that we’re a little smarter now. We try to emphasize native plants in our yards and gardens and we’ve enacted strict laws on the import of other species — sometimes effectively. But illegal immigrants such as foreign pythons still roam the Everglades, zebra mussels have invaded the Great Lakes and other places are invaded by equally disruptive species.

It seems that we don’t really understand the world we live in now, much less the impacts of the changes we make. Even when we think we know how it works and what the consequences could be, a large number of people will decide that maybe we don’t need to worry about that issue. I mean, why should we worry about climate change and carbon emissions? If you agree with the science, most of the impacts won’t really be felt until we’re gone and our children can deal with it. If the science is wrong (really, what do scientists know about science, anyway?), no big deal. Either way, we don’t want to have to think about problems or change our lifestyles. (What, me worry?)

However, we still don’t understand the systems we live in now, so how can we trust our understanding of the changes we make? Nature is pretty resilient, and seems to recover whenever we leave it alone. I’ve hiked the nearby foothills through beautiful, natural forests, and come upon a tree stump, old weathered and clearly sawn off just above the ground. I learned that the forests near my town were ruthlessly cut to provide fuel and lumber for mines and buildings. In the mid to late-1800’s the original forests were decimated. What we see now are second or third-growth forests.

I hiked up a lonely valley in the mountains once, where the roughness of the terrain would have precluded any settlement. Of course, far back against the mountainside was a lean-to log cabin, collapsed in ruin, and a midden of old cans and bottles. Further down the hill I found a wood stave pipeline, half buried and rotting, that must have brought water down to a mine below. These places were used; people came here, settled in and then left. Nature took it all back.

However, the nature that exists now is not necessarily the natural world envisioned as a pristine “Eden.” Nature is always changing due to “natural” processes, and man has had a significant influence since we appeared on the scene millenia ago. The concept of an undisturbed natural state is a fantasy. So, when we think about rewilding places, what can we plan for?

The rewilding concept has various interpretations. Some see it as restoring large species, such as wolves, bears, lynx and moose, into protected areas like national parks. Others envision the restoration of disturbed environments, managing them to preserve the environment and protecting them from human intrusion. The concept that I’m most comfortable with restores wildness to the degree consistent with the place’s shared human use.

Rewilding will not re-create some mythical Edenic past, but restore natural systems and balance that will create the conditions where nature can take charge. Once that happens, humans need to get out of the way. The end result will not necessarily be what we design, but what nature creates.

Apologies to Heraclitus, “No man ever steps in the same nature twice.”

One of the key concepts in rewilding is to restore keystone species to ecosystems. The restoration of wolves to Yellowstone National Park improved the natural systems, including vegetation, species diversity and health, water and forest quality, and tourism. Trophic cascade is the effect that creatures higher up the food chain have on those further down. Of course, we’re not talking about re-introducing wolves or bears into city parks or urban neighborhoods, but we do need some native controls in the natural systems.

Say you’ve got a high performance car, you open the hood and remove that thingy on the side of the engine. You don’t know what it did or how it will affect the car’s performance. The car may not start or may still run, but at some point, performance will be impacted. Alternately, you take a recipe for a cake, and randomly leave out an ingredient. Whatever happens, the cake will likely be different from the original.

As a society, we’ve spent a lot of time changing nature’s recipes without any consideration for how it might impact the cake. We’ve eliminated predators – wolves, bears, coyotes, foxes, eagles, weasels – and other problem critters – prairie dogs, beavers, buffalo – out of our world with varying degrees of success. We now find that the results undermine our own health and welfare, and we need nature to be part of our community. We can and should work to create a community with humans and nature, where nature is restoring itself. We can try to bring nature back to some semblance of what it was before; however, adding the missing ingredient back into the finished cake will not make it taste like the original.

The result could be interesting, though.

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