Nature worship: desert to Delta to Detroit

Down in rice country halfway between Crockett’s Bluff and Stuttgart, Arkansas, its hard to be a worshiper of Nature.  As soon as it gets nice in the Spring, the blackflies (we callf them buffalo gnats) make life miserable for man and beast.  This Spring was one of the worst.  Buffalo gnats clogging deer noses and mouths left them dead on the side of the road.  One even sought out our barn for refuge–more scared of Nature than of Man.

Druids-Stonehenge-Fire-In-Night-WallpaperWe humans just retreat indoors to our air-conditioned,Terminixed habitat.  In the Delta we venture out again when the  the temperature warms up too much for the blackflies.  Then the mosquitos emerge and stay all summer.  The folks who love this part of Arkansas say, “at least we don’t have the ticks and chiggers they have up in the Ozarks.”  At Meadowcreek, the newly arrived nature worshippers can attest to the power of ticks and chiggers to make life miserable.  Try calming a city girl who had never had ticks and notices those blood sucking creatures have embedded themselves in her stomach, even though she showered immediately after coming out of the woods.  We wondered why Noah didn’t squish those two  ticks when he had the chance.

It’s much easier to be a worshiper of Nature when you live in a big city.  Man has done a good job of banishing as many of the unpleasant aspects of Nature as he can in the city. Unless you don’t have a job, then you might riot and tear down all the structures man has built to make life easier.  Being without a job in the city is a problem.  Some would solve that by giving everyone a government job.  Then its real easy to be a nature worshiper.  You can even live in the country and be a nature worshiper if you have a government job.

Park rangers, God love ’em, are proof positive. Leave no trace is their admonition to visitors.  And they are right given the system they manage.  Too many city people trampling on desert soils will cause destruction.  Travelling through the Utah desert the last few days, that’s been drilled home to me.  The swarms of city dwellers from Asia, Germany, France and innumerable other countries have descended on our national parks and monuments.  Park rangers have to keep them off the landscape or it is destroyed.

Unfortunately, those who want to preserve nature often invent pseudo-scientific terms and theories to keep people away from Nature.  One of new terms they’ve invented lately is cryptobiological crust.  Desert soils often form a crust which keeps torrential rains from washing away bare soils.  This crust does absorb some water.  Just enough to keeps its living components alive and growing.  The desert crust is a typical diverse natural system composed of lichens, moss, fungi, bacteria, algae,  In ways we have yet to discover, these organisms interact to create a system which keeps them all alive and preserves the soil from erosion.

However, this crust also prevents plants from taking root.  Plants can only gain a foothold when an large animal punches a hole in the crust and deposits seed.  Antelope, buffalo and cattle do this with their hooves and seed in their manure.  Then a plant can grow.  Without the disturbance of the animal, the crust will maintain itself, survive and be resilient.  But it is a resilience trap.  The crust system keeps a more complex and more productive system from developing–unless the crust is disturbed.

A similar crust forms on Arctic soils.  This crust, composed of cold tolerant variants of the same organisms which form the desert crust, also keeps higher plants from invading.  The crust is a complex adaptive system which adapts to cold by creating a micro-environment where its components can thrive.  Native peoples turned the Arctic crust into a productive grassland by managing reindeer.  Russian scientists found that the same could be achieved if cows were judiciously introduced.  American scientists, though perhaps a bit blinkered by political correctness, are moving slowly to the same conclusion.  Cows or reindeer can break up the crust and allow grasses to take root and flourish.  Of course, too many cows are as bad as too many tourists, but as long as cow hoof and grazing disturbance is applied properly, a new resilient system emerges, more productive than the old system and just as resilient.

Allen Savory has become famous  and infamous by showing that desert soils also respond to judicious application of hooved animals.  When large grazing animals are totally removed from desert soils, a crust forms and plants never take root.  When hooved animals are introduced sparingly, the desert can be transformed into a grassland.  As long as the cows are not permitted to overgraze.  In natural systems, a wolf pack will keep the grazing animals in a tight herd limiting disturbance to small areas where growth is lush.  Man must do the same same with controlled grazing or any landscape will be degraded.

The park ranger, in his system, controls the impact of his large animals–humans.  Unfortunately, he does so by inventing terms like crytobiological crust and teaching visitors that nature must not be disturbed.

The Papago (or Tohono O’odham as my friends in Tucson say) in Mexico, through irrigation and other appropriate agriculture, formed an oasis that attracted birds. The Park Service in Arizona had banned the same nation from their traditional farming methods on an ecological preserve.This restriction ironically reduced the bird sanctuary’s bird and plant biodiversity.

Man is and always has been a part of Nature. Nature is just the result of the interactions of all species with each other.  The problem is that Man’s technology enables him to destroy when he fails to appreciate the importance of both aspects of the dualities of resilience.

We must worship nature in the sense of respecting natural processes, but not fall for the rigidity trap of “leave no trace.”  We can help natural processes achieve more resilience along with the diversity which accompanies resilience.  we must also work to create more resilient and productive systems.  We must work with Nature and not leave it alone.

This morning I woke up in the desert.  In the budget motel where I am staying, the breakfast room is outside.  There are no bugs or rain to speak of, so its fine to have the breakfast outdoors in the cool high desert mornings.

No bugs and no rain to worry about is also what makes “organic agriculture” easier in the desert.  Just apply irrigation water and never have to spray.  It’s totally organic and USDA will give you a stamp to prove it.  Yet is the system resilient?  The fate of civilizations in low rainfall areas says no. But that’s a huge topic which will have to wait for another day.

Now we’re off to explore some more desert.  We do so knowing that Nature is a blind innovator.  We must keep our eyes open.

(By the way, if you really want to learn more about desert soils look here.)