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Ragamuffin Earth

June 3, 2012

The pessimistic view says there are no pristine ecosystems left. Human pollutants and human-borne invasives reach every habitat, including Antarctica, where islands fill up with dandelion and chickweed.

Yet outside my village window, long ago logged and farmed, there are orioles, robins and hummingbirds; and not far off, bald eagles and coyotes. And enough wildflowers and second-growth forest to fill a herbarium.  Is this an ecosystem worth having, even studying?

Yes, argue some proponents of Ragamuffin Earth. A large proportion of Earth’s habitat is now considered “novel ecosystem,” that is, full of invaders of one sort or another. But what if the invader just makes a home there? Aren’t all ecosystems in fact “novel” from one perspective or another?  In The Highest Frontier, the Somers food chain consists of kudzu, squirrels, Cuban frogs, and Florida pythons. That’s what the protagonist considers home.

So what makes an ecosystem “good” or “bad”? Diversity is usually cited as the key. If a novel species encourages diversity, or simply fits into it, then that is considered a robust ecosystem. “Productivity” is another measure, but again subjective. A redwood forest is “productive” because it stores lots of carbon in lignin. But does it reach a stable point where it no longer makes a net impact? If the only trees are redwoods, does that lack diversity?

The hopeful goal is that we can learn to define diversity and productivity before it’s too late to protect ecosystems that provide both. The fear is that even the most vigorous species will wither before a “climate tsunami” — a period of change so rapid that ecosystems will be burnt down or swept away, even if something like normal temperatures return later. Runaway ice melt, or a methane quake from the ocean floor, might be possible triggers.

  1. June 3, 2012 10:48 pm

    so diversity would be flexibility. like a bungee cord that stretches farther than seems possible, rather than snaps. Potentially dangerous terminology, if the climate change is civilization-driven, rather than the vagaries of a spinning ball orbiting a bonfire…

  2. Rick York permalink
    June 4, 2012 4:53 pm

    It is also interesting to note that – at least in New York State and New England – there is substantially more forest today than at the time of the American Revolution. Is that “old” or “new”?

    • June 4, 2012 5:15 pm

      The New England/New York forest is largely second growth. Back in 1700s, it was all farmland, because they’d chopped down all the trees. Behind my parents’ home in NY, you can see stone walls through the forest marking off the old farm plots.

      The only old-growth left is in mountainous regions like Appalachia, and on the west coast, preserves of redwoods and douglas firs. If you’ve ever been in a true old-growth forest, you know how different it is. The trees are awesome for height; and the climate is 20 degrees cooler, and wetter, than out in the grassland. It feels like Avatar.

      So the opposite argument to mine above is that no “novel ecosystem” can ever match the old ones–because the old ones clearly communicate their vast size and superiority to tiny human beings. In Avatar, the humans/Navi look like ants on an acacia tree. Today it’s hard for humans to gain that experience, which was commonplace for westward pioneers in the 17th century. Until they chopped/burned it all down, alas.

  3. heteromeles permalink
    June 4, 2012 6:45 pm

    This argument gets seriously twisted, which is not a criticism Joan. I did my PhD work in upper Midwest oak savannas. They are almost gone, but they’re ridiculously rich: 500 species in 40 acres (or about 25% of the state flora in 40 acres). They used to be much more common, but oak savannas are fire dependent, and with settlement came fire suppression. Savannas were either plowed for farmland, or left unburned, they grew up forests of oak that are now turning into forests of maple and basswood.

    The fun thing that people don’t like to admit is that the fires that sustained the savannas were largely human set for the last few millennia–how long, I don’t know. In other words, humans were largely responsible for maintaining at the most diverse ecosystem in the upper midwest until about 150 years ago. Now, the US Army does the job, by accidentally starting fires on their military bases while teaching soldiers how to shoot artillery. How’s that for diversity promoters?

    In California, it’s the same story in particular ecosystems up and down the state. There’s even a couple of books (Before the Wilderness and Tending the Wild) that detail how California’s Indians managed landscapes to be highly diverse and productive, without actually domesticating anything other than tobacco.

    Rackham and Grove’s Nature of Mediterranean Europe includes similar practices from the Mediterranean (such as the Spanish dehesa), and I’m aware of examples elsewhere (Amazonian riverine forests, Australian bush, the Congo, and some islands in the Pacific, and Arizona).

    Right now, I’m dealing with an extremely diverse (110 plant species in a square mile) little pocket wilderness amongst the new developments where I live. One group is pushing hard to literally fence it off from all its neighbors, arguing that it’s “the last pristine little remnant of wilderness” and it has to be preserved against the numerous trespassers who use it daily.

    Unfortunately for the purity fanatics, up until about 10 years ago, people lived in this little pocket wilderness(camps built by migrants who worked in the nearby nurseries), and there are archeological artifacts dating back 3000 years. And yes, it still has 110 different plant species in it. Go figure. Unfortunately for us, the fanatics currently have the ear of the wildlife agencies, so the fences are going to go up, and undoubtedly they’re going to get shredded by vandals.

    I’ll admit I’ve gotten to the point where I want to slap anyone who whines about wanting pristine ecosystems or nothing at all. The only thing that’s pristine about them is the relevant experience section in that person’s resume, at least as far as I’m concerned. A far better goal is to keep as many species going as possible, wherever they are found.

    Rather than fencing off a wilderness and pretending that’s going to protect it, I’d rather educate the trespassers, sort out the real environmentalists from the others, and put them to work taking care of a place a lot of people have come to know and love, albeit illegally. Hopefully that will discourage the jerks and vandals who also like trespassing, and we might even keep those 110 species around for another 50 years.

    • SFreader permalink
      June 5, 2012 2:57 pm

      I’ve a gardening friend who often tosses plant seeds out the car window whenever she drives to her cottage and sees unkempt/empty spaces. She calls this ‘guerrilla gardening’.

      Another scenario: a friend spent a few summers planting seedlings – all of one tree species – in areas harvested by paper mills.

      What’s your educational/professional opinion on such activities?

      I once read that one of the main lessons learned from early tree-planting drives – possibly in California- was that apart from requisite diversity, the planted area usually has to go through a multistage maturation process (similar to insects I suppose) where one form of vegetation literally prepares the ground for the next plant stage and so on until you have both maximum diversity and stability.

  4. heteromeles permalink
    June 5, 2012 6:55 pm

    My take on guerrilla gardening is that, if you don’t know whether the seeds you’re planting are locally native to the area, don’t do it. I also strongly don’t favor planting trees in recent clearings, unless that’s what would happen under normal succession.

    Personally, I strongly favor guerrilla weeding.

    Here’s the deal. “Wildflower” is an industrial term, not a biological term. It means short-lived plants that will grow with little or no tending, and often these include non-native plants. Even native plant seed mixes can have a large population of weeds. Reputable companies will tell you what percent weed seed is in their mix, and it is rarely zero. Many seed packets say nothing at all about contamination. One example: I tried a commercially made seed ball made with allegedly locally native plants in a pot in my garden. After a year, the only two plants were two non-native weeds. The native seed was contaminated with weed seeds, and they were the only things that survived.

    As for tree planting, it depends on the location and the tree, but it can be very problematic. For example, near me, state parks has been systematically cutting down the shrubs that were happily regrowing where a forest burned, and planting pine seedlings. They were working under a 1970s paradigm that the shrubs were bad. Oddly enough, the trees they planted mostly died, even with supplemental watering. In the normal course of things, the shrubs would have lasted most of a century, ultimately serving as nursery plants for the pine trees. The parks didn’t want to wait, and so they spent a lot of money disrupting succession, for little or no gain.

    Conversely, weeds are a serious problem almost everywhere, and you can do a lot of good, even by something as simple as hand-pulling seedlings before they get established. For some reason, this isn’t as appealing as guerrilla gardening. It’s more useful, but people tend to enjoy planting seeds more.

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