Mr. Green

January 31, 2009


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.