Nature’s soft passementerie

May 3, 2009

teaneck_creek

Today, in rainy weather, I went for a walk in this nature preserve in my town, a scant 5 miles from Manhattan.  In the photo, it looks like a park with large soft lawns, but it’s actually a swampy marsh with a path constructed through it.  In the rain, I can see how the water fills the channels and where it flows, and the colors look soft and rich.  The birds act differently too.

The essence of a garden, or park, is the joining of the path and nature.  Nature has no paths; they are for man.  Of course, this area is “restored”, and has been much abused by man, and the path through it is carefully built, but still, one has the feeling, especially in the rain, of tramping through a place without humans.  Even though residential quarters are often only a few yards away!

Here are those soft passementeries I was thinking of.  Inviting us into it, to rummage and grope and get lost.  As in a woman’s closet of dresses.  Sloththrop gets lost in just this way with Katje, but he’s always getting lost…

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A profusion of leafy things, none of them with names that I know.

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The object of my walk.  I took a sample of the water for examination under the microscope.

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Crystal Ball

March 30, 2009

coal

Friedman’s column in the NYTimes today, Mother Nature’s Dow, was typical of his work – filled with “big” ideas, poorly thought out, emotional, enthusiastic, and totally superficial.  One commenter suggested that he was rallying the Global Warming troops in the wake of the article on Freeman Dyson, the world-famous skeptic, that appeared in the Times Magazine and the recent cold weather!  (Hot weather is always evidence of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) – cold weather is just a random variation…)  What really got me was the comments of this sort, which were many:

the skepticism toward climate change never ceases to amaze me. the weight given to climatologists who discount man-made climate change is horribly out of balance with those who are sounding the alarms (and have been for a good decade – with increasing intensity). we are witnessing earth’s change at a rapid rate. we already have irreparable damage to some ecosystems. now is not the time to be an ostrich. and the apathy of many people who do recognize this truth is deeply disappointing.

Yes, the planet is changing, it always is changing.  Yes, many ecosystems are being damaged, mostly by destruction of habitat as a result of human settlement.  And why does the increasing intensity (stridency?) of the “ones who know” mean that they are right?  Often that signals that a person is wrong!

fallofman

Human Beings and Original (Environmental) Sin

Among the comments I read were many that seemed to stop just short of calling for forced population control.  Humans are a harmful virus, you see.  This is part of the “religion of environmentalism” that Dyson talks about, often sympathetically.  I noticed another example of it on walk through a nature preserve near my house.  Some trees there have metal plates with messages on them about ecology that were done by local school children.  One stated that we are destroying our source of oxygen every day by a given amount (I forget the figures.)  This was a reference, I believe, to deforestation, but were these children also apprised of the growth of oxygen producers in some areas?

Having just finished reading about Cotton Mather and his role in the Salem Witch Trials, and having my head filled with thoughts about Old Time Religion, the plaque seemed a lot like an old fashioned religious motto intended to make you feel bad and remind you of your essentially sinful nature…so you could think of this occasionally after you go back to your normal life.  Yes, walkers will see this plaque and shake their heads:  “How true – out of the mouths of babes…”  And they will climb  back into their cars (maybe a Prius) and drive away.

Let’s get real.  I make a few predictions and such:

  • Human population will continue to grow for a long time, although the rate of increase is likely to continually slow.  This population will need lots of energy.  I suspect that coal, for good or ill, is going to provide a lot of it.
  • Saving energy is good for all sorts of reasons – why waste it or anything else?  But we are not likely to be 100% energy self-sufficient here in the USA, not if we don’t want our economy to grind to a halt.  Priuses and coiled light bulbs, and more efficient homes and transit will use vastly less energy, if everyone used them now, but they don’t, and by the time they do, if they do, there will be more of us.  So at best, we can hope for a slightly decreasing rate of increase in our energy consumption in the near term.
  • Stopping population growth won’t happen, and isn’t a realistic goal for any near-term, unless we are willing to resort to a police state.  At least that would have the added benefit of putting the lid on our consumer culture so that the fewer people wouldn’t continue to consume more, but I’m not looking forward to it.
  • Everyone says nice things about “sustainability” but few really think it through.  What does it mean?  How much are we willing to NOT have as we move through the 21st century?  How thoroughly can we rework our societies, and not have massive civil unrest, in our search for clean energy?  Not much, I think.  After all the “cosmetic” green stuff is worked through, short of social breakdown or revolution, we will need more energy.  I bet coal supplies a lot of it throughout the world.  Coal can produce electricity, and electricity can replace oil.

Not too pretty, eh?


Mr. Green

January 31, 2009

green_george_perkins_marsh

Today, the New York Times had a fascinating article about jungles and rain forests in Central America.  It seems that as old rain forests are being eroded by settlement, new ones are springing up.  While a piece of farmland in New England might take 100 years to produce a tract of second growth woodland that approaches, at least to the untutored eye, the nature of the original woods, in the tropics, the process might take only fifteen or twenty years.

As people move to the cities for higher incomes, farms are being abandoned and left to be reclaimed by the jungle.  Some estimate that the new forests are growing in area at a rate nearly three times the rate that the old ones are being cut down.  Of course, the new growth is not the same as old growth, at least not when it’s new!  And some of the forest will be fragmented and far from old growth areas, so there are hurdles to a regeneration of the ecology of it, but it does suggest some interesting management strategies.

One of the biggest controversies, it seems, is how to account for the newer growth in the carbon inventories that have become so popular.  A new growth forest isn’t all that different from old growth from the standpoint of carbon dioxide intake – it just won’t have the same diversity of flora and fauna – but this notion doesn’t sit well with some environmentalists.  They fear a license to chainsaw the old under the false sense that it’s being replaced even as it’s destroyed.

The Times, with its usual cuteness and superficiality on scientific matters, refers to the newer growth areas as faux forest.  That should be faux forest.  Ha ha…Tacky tacky.  But then, only time is needed to make faux authentic.

The article concludes with a quote from a scientist:

Still, the fate of secondary forests lies not just in biology. A global recession could erase jobs in cities, driving residents back to the land.

“Those are questions for economists and politicians, not us,” Dr. Wright said.

Yes, well, it takes a geographer…like George Perkins Marsh, the original environmentalist!  In his amazing book, Man and Nature (1864), he examined this interaction of human culture and the landscape in a way that had never been done before.  He demonstrated that it was human actitivy that was responsible for flooding in many regions of Europe (cut down the trees and the moutains can’t absorb heavy storms…), he showed that the landscape of northern Africa had been turned from woodland to desert by millenia of grazing herds, he discussed micro-climates, and he was active in creating the enormous Adirondack Park in New York State, after it had been completely denuded of trees.

His eco-orientation, wholistic approach to environmentalism, subtle appreciation of the man-landscape system is rare today when everyone is a specialist a technical sub-field.  The basic lessons of his book, Man and Nature, are still mostly appreciated in the observance, not the breech! That is, when we destroy a landscape, we notice and decry the hand of man upon the world.  But when it happened outside of our lifetimes, we assume it’s natural!  How many people mourn the loss of Europe’s forests, which used to cover 80% of that continent?  How many people exult and gush over the beauty of the English countryside, nature’s bounty, without realizing that most of it is the quiltwork of human agricultural husbandry over 2,000 years?

This is a cultural side-effect of mass-urbanization in the modern era.  We don’t quite know what nature looks like.