One learns that it takes more than a collection of trees to make a forest, as we know it in this country. Unless they house that spirit of wildness and purity like a temple, they fail to satisfy.

John Burroughs, Fresh Fields

The sand around the greasewood bush on the dune was bare except for a few scraggly grasses. My Navajo aide Sammy bent down and spread the sand from around a small green shoot. “Wild onion,” he told me. He pulled it out of the ground and it looked exactly like a very small green onion — and tasted like one as well.

I looked around and suddenly noticed dozens of the small green sprigs across the sand. Looking closer, I also saw other small plants, previously unnoticed, and realized that the desert surface included lots of plant life small enough to overlook. It was a nearly invisible community dwarfed and overshadowed by the sparse larger shrubs.

I’ve since had the same experience on the prairie and in forests. The grassland is actually made up of dozens of species of grasses and forbs, not to mention fungi, microbes and small critters. The pine forest shelters a vast array of ground plants like kinnikinnick and grape holly, and the forest litter provides fodder for fungi that help restore nutrients from decaying plants. Beneath it all is the thick duff, a layer of shed needles, leaves and bark crawling with ants, beetles, worms and other tiny denizens.

Prairies and forests are actually not defined by their grasses or trees, but by the interconnected biota that make them possible. Our soils hold some of the most complex ecosystems on the planet. Before surface mining, companies are required to capture and store the top soil for use in reclamation. That material contains at least the vestiges of an active, alive ecosystem — the goal for post-mining reclamation. It isn’t the soil itself that must be replaced, as much as it is the specific conglomeration of things that the soil contains.

In the semi-factual movie Hidalgo, an American mustang competes against pure-bred Arabians in a 3000-mile survival race across the Najd desert and wins, demonstrating that it takes more that pure genetics to make a great horse. Mongrels of the horse world, wild Mustangs are known for their strength and sturdiness. In general, all mongrels are less susceptible to genetic health problems and many consider them superior to most pure-bred animals. This same reliance on mixed genes to create strength is mirrored in whole ecosysems as well.

Nature isn’t one-dimensional. Nature mixes together all kinds of things to create a viable and sustainable community and ecosystem. Even our monocultural farm fields contain a mixture of biota, mycelia, and other flora that, combined, provide the support needed for the whole community to thrive. (One reason why indiscriminate use of pesticides and herbicides is self-defeating.) Trees in forests use mycelium to communicate with other trees about environmental conditions, pests, etc. In prairies, the subsurface is critical to the system health, and regular burning removes dead materials and makes the nutrients available for reuse in the soil.

Similar co-dependency exists among animals. Birds offer tick and insect removal from larger animals. Obviously, predator-prey relationships allow herbivores to harvest energy from plants that is then converted into flesh-energy available to carnivores. Animal species do not exist separate from others, but intermix in ways mutually beneficial to all species. This web of connectedness extends to the interrelationships between animal and plant communities, each taking and giving resources that make the system sustainable.

This need for diversity, interaction and mutual support extends to human communities that also need a take-and-give relationship in order to be sustainable. Like all species, humans thrive when they are a part of a diverse community that includes man and nature. In fact, we thrive when we can integrate our actions with nature, but we’re apparently not very good at this yet.

We’re not even very good at mixing with other humans. Pure genetics are no more a strength for humans than they are for plants or animals. While “birds of a feather” may fly together, they do not do so to the exclusion of all other birds. It seems to be primarily humans that try to keep ‘others’ away. Too often, we fear those that are ‘not-us’.

While there may be some historic reasons for such exclusive behavior, I’m always surprised that some people can’t see the benefits of mixing different peoples and different cultures like Nature does. As a manager of multidisciplinary teams most of my career, I found great strength in the differences among people I worked with. Different perspectives, different experiences and different opinions have all led to better overall approaches and solutions.

Sure, it can be difficult to work with people that think differently than you do, and sometimes communicating within a diverse team requires more effort, but the results are invariably better. It takes more than a collection of people to make a community. It requires that “spirit of wildness,” the wild mustang influence, or the mongrel effect that causes us to think and see things more broadly.

Forests and trees, prairies and grasses, deserts and dunes all exist and survive because of the variety of their component parts. Our human communities are strongest when we value their component parts as well.


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