Saturday, December 20, 2014

Novel Ecosystems and a Deep Love of Place

Novel ecosystems -- places so altered by humans they can't support the native life that once thrived there, so a mix of exotic and native move in and create a new ecosystem. Let's get one thing clear: nature no longer exists. With methane and CO2 emissions there's not one place on earth that hasn't been substantially altered, but to say that humans have always been altering the earth is a bit of a false argument for accepting and adapting to novel ecosystems. The most often used example is Native Americans burning prairie. Let's get one thing straight, various Plains tribes setting fire to grassland to encourage lush new growths -- which in turn attracts bison herds -- is barely on the same scale as raising global temperatures several degrees, acidifying oceans, creating dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, melting polar ice caps, extracting tar sands oil, or suburban sprawl with hard surfaces and lawn.

I agree on the idea of novel ecosystems -- we do live in a substantially altered world. But what really grabs my goat are the voices who embrace, in totality, novel ecosystems. Why? In that embracing I don't hear what we need to hear in order to move on regarding our altering ways -- a sense of guilt, remorse, of sadness, of loss, of deep, deep, deep, love for the world and all of its species who will struggle for survival. I feel like when we are quick to accept the reality of novel ecosystems we are simply embracing a weak panacea -- anything to move on from the hurt we must feel in order to make deep, long term changes to how we live and how we manage the planet.

Because that's exactly what climate change and novel ecosystems demand of us -- the managing if not micromanaging of every ecosystem in the hopes of lessening the pain of transitioning to a new world we're creating blindly and without understanding of what we're replacing. We can't know or anticipate what ecosystem functions are being lost, how these will trickle up to larger species like us. We don't even know all the soil bacteria in healthy prairie, let alone what function they serve. To me, being too fast to accept novel ecocystems comes from the same sickness that tears up landscapes for our own immediate needs -- it doesn't stop to think, reflect, and most importantly to feel. And perhaps it doesn't stop long enough to deeply understand a place, what was, what is, and what may be. We have to fall in love with every place, every ecocsystem, if we have any hope of helping it. To me, novel ecosystems have the potential to let us stay out of deep love of place, they help ease the burden of invasive species we've brought in from other ecoregions, the reality of concrete jungles with impermeable surfaces and heat islands, the vast rows of corn doused with chemicals that not only kill birds and insects but most soil life.

We have to hurt for our place. We have to feel the loss and the absence. I'm not a masochist, trust me, I just know that if we don't grieve while there's still time, we may repeat our mistakes (and grief is unimaginable love). Kids today see 35% fewer butterflies than their parents did 40 years ago. U.S. grasslands may lose 77% of their size by 2100 -- the most threatened ecosystem on the planet. 1/3 of global plant species face the danger of extinction by mid century. If we're to help ourselves and other species adapt to a world changing so fast adaptation may be impossible regardless, the least we can do is learn the species of our home ground -- they have much to teach us about adaptability, wildlife support, soil life, and what new species will need to thrive in a world that is, for good and bad, now of our own making. Love and know your place with all of your heart -- be brutally open to the swings of loss and ecstasy that such deep love brings -- because this is the only reality that will allow novel ecosystems to fit the ecological ideal we hope they'll perform. Where can we start? In our gardens. Our parks. Our highway edges.

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