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Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Our Changing Landscape

When I bought this property, the grass in the pasture, about five acres, was mowed short with only a few oak trees and the big twin pines standing out of what otherwise seemed like a very flat field.

You might say that it was an artificially induced oak savanna. According to the wikipedia, before Europeans came to this area, oak savannas were a dominant part of the landscape.

 Fires, set by lightning or Native Americans, ensured that the savanna areas did not turn into forests. Only trees with a high tolerance for fire, principally certain oak species, were able to survive. On sandy soils, black oak (Quercus velutina) predominated. On rich soils bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) was the major tree in Midwestern North America. These savanna areas provided habitat for many animals, including American bison, elk, and white-tailed deer. European settlers cleared much of the savanna for agricultural use. In addition, they suppressed the fire cycle. Thus surviving pockets of savanna typically became less like savannas and more like forests or thickets. Many oak savanna plant and animal species became extinct or rare.
Now that is a story you don't usually hear. I always imagined that the European settlers cut down trees and destroyed forests to create farmland. But instead,  they seem to have created too much forest by preventing brush fires. What would Smokey the Bear say about that?

Things have been changing on my land since I showed up and stopped mowing the pasture, and the savanna is heading toward forest. It's a savanna still, but unless we have a fire soon, the trees that I never planted will grow into a forest. That is a strange thought for me. I don't want to mow, and I don't particularly want a fire. But fires are natural, and they are part of the life cycle of the land.And yet that does not seem to be direction in which things are headed at the moment.

Trees I never planted

It rains almost every day now, and when it does not rain, the sky is full of clouds and the air is full of mist and so a spontaneous fire is unlikely to get started. If anything, we seem about to grow a mighty rainforest.

Did you know that one of possible outcomes of our changing climate would be that the African savanna may turn into a forest? According to a letter by Steven I. Higgins and Simon Scheiter published in Nature, atmospheric changes in carbon dioxide can force abrupt vegetation shifts locally, but not globally. High accumulations of carbon dioxide actually shift a change from savanna to forest. It all comes out in the wash. So the destruction of the Amazon rainforest would be compensated for by the change of the African savanna into a rainforest. Devastating for local wildlife and people in both areas, but it's the case of the earth's ecosystem balancing itself.

Don't cry for Mother Earth. Cry for yourself. That seems to be the overarching theme.  Sustainability does not necessarily mean local stability, when you look at things from a long term global perspective. And I think this is one of the many ways that the average tree hugger fails to consider the inexorable rules of nature.

When people talk about sustainability, they sometimes seem to envision a kind of stability that is not too different from stagnation. When they see change they think that if we caused it, it must be bad. But nature itself changes things all the time, in a none-too-gentle way. A wildfire is a devastating event that kills everything in its wake. And from that death emerges new life. But if you insist on putting out all the wildfires, then nature will find another way to balance things out. "Only you can prevent forest fires!" says Uncle Sam, the central planner, dressed in a bear costume. How arrogant is that?!

In my savanna/soon-to-be-rainforest, I have been keeping track of the milkweed population. Above is a photo of the purple milkweed in its usual spot. It has been flowering there for the past three years. You can see the old dried out seedpods right next to the fresh new flowers about to bloom. But that area is overrun with poison ivy, and there is no way to kill the poison ivy without also killing the milkweed. My common milkweed that grows by the oak in the pasture has already been strangled by poison ivy.

This is where the common milkweed used to grow
from this blogpost: Selective Stewardship

This year, I have looked in vain, and all I can see in that spot are very tall poison ivy plants. I am thinking that if the trend continues, the same will happen to the purple milkweed in its usual spot. However, the good news is that the purple milkweed has also propagated itself in a new spot with very rich soil: the little oasis of the Something Else Flowers.

In this part of the pasture, every flower blooms a darker, richer, brighter color than anywhere else.

The purple milkweed is just that much more purple here. The Something Else Flower is a  richer shade of pink.

What is the secret that makes this ground so fertile? I think it has something to do with the leaves composting on the ground.

Don't stop watching the video of the insects enjoying the flower above until you have also seen the leaves on the ground and the ants swarming among them. If you want to see how an ecosystem really works, don't mow your pasture for fourteen years! Then you'll understand that change, not sustainability, is the first rule of nature!

In disturbed areas, such as by the side of the road, we see the most beautiful, delicate flowers bloom. This puff of a flower, which I have always called a mimosa, is also quite aptly named the sensitive briar, I learned from my friend Kathy.

The pollen on the edges makes the flower look like a lit firecracker or fireworks in the sky on the fourth of July. It grows there at the edge by the outer fence, and not in the middle of the woods, because every once in a while the mowers come and cut everything down by the side of the road.

It is also at the side of the road, where things are periodically mowed, that the purple milkweed is already blossoming, attracting bees, other insects, and an occasional motorist.

If we want to maintain an environment that is most inviting and sustaining for certain plants, then we have to destroy others. But destroying those others sometimes entails periodically killing off also the flowers that we most desire to foster. You can't get rid of poison ivy without getting rid of milkweed. It's only after the general devastation of a fire or a mowing that the milkweed gets a leg up over the poison ivy.

To create anything, you must first destroy something else. Our very lives are an unsustainable jaunt from birth till inevitable death. Civilizations rise and fall. Only a mighty oak survives the periodic brush fires that keep the entire wood from becoming a deep, thick black forest. But even oaks can be felled, sometimes brought low by the tiniest insects that prey on them.

Each flower fends for itself

It would be so arrogant to think that we control anything but the smallest part of our environment, or that any mistakes we make will be devastating to anyone but ourselves. Local devastation is not a global problem. It never was! Each flower fends for itself. And the balance of nature is quite inscrutable to the tiny ant.


  1. It is very true how when people move into a certain area trees become more dense due to natural forest fires no longer being able to occur. We discussed this a lot with the fires in our local mountains. However, once people are living in a certain area you have to put out fires, and natural fires cannot just burn at free will. It is the catch twenty two of moving into new places, and people changing the land. Native Americans also used slash and burn techniques in regions where large amounts of crops were grown. There was never a time humans treated the land like a pristine creature. The problem is with more population growth there will always be more drain on resources, which includes land. To me it is all about balance.

    1. Hi, Julia. I agree it is about balance. But the real question is what is being balanced and who is doing the balancing. To say that once a lot of people live someplace, we can't let the fires rage makes sense to us because we are among those people, But the wildlife that die in wild fires probably don't like dying, either.

      All of the survivors after a major disaster that reduces population are the beneficiaries of the good effects of more space and less crowding. All who die or suffer injury are victims of the bad effects. The Smoky the Bear ad campaign, like other public service announcements about diseases or natural disasters, only showed one side of the balancing equation. You never hear the government say, but on the other hand, it reduces poverty when these things happen.

      It's the same with the milkweed. If I wanted to make a good place for milkweed to grow in my pasture, I'd have to burn down all of the milkweed that is next to the poison ivy. It would be a major devastation for the existent milkweed. But the next season, the new milkweed would thrive. Nobody addresses these issues because they are too painful to face.