Singing the Creek Alive, Part I
by Molly Murfee
I led a Nature Writing workshop last week – out in the dead center of the blooming Mule’s Ears, Columbine, Lupine and Indian Paintbrush. We were writing about cycles, and from the sheer gargantuaness of the phenomenon before me, I chose the cycle of flowering.
I pondered where the energy to bloom came from and quickly entered into cycles of water and warmth, of nitrogen-fixing lightening and nourishing rain, of microbes in the soil and winter’s snowmelt. I thought of the wind and birds carrying seeds, and the aerating capacity of burrowing mammals like chipmunks or voles. And I thought about how all of these things are connected. If the life cycle of the bird is disrupted, the seeds don’t get dispersed. If the seeds aren’t dispersed, there aren’t enough flowers and the bees suffer, thereby further impacting the flowers. If there is no matter to decompose in the soil, the beneficial microbes can’t fertilize the plants.
In an ecosystem everything has its place, its individual role in supporting the complexity of the whole.
What then, I wondered, is the role of humans?
Not the impact. The role.
My first reaction was that in modern times it’s our role to just get out of the way and not screw things up more than we already have. Let the planet do its thing. Try not to do any more damage. Fix what we’ve broken.
But staying out of the way and triage recovery is hardly an ecological niche. Nothing I looked at that flowery day, seemed to be dependent on humans at all in the consideration of a “role” rather than a mitigation.
I searched for the “role of humans in an ecosystem” on the computer, resulting in a barrage of our negative impacts and potential band-aids to the gaping wound – “the world’s greatest evolutionary force,” rapid change, species extinction, habitat destruction, declines in biodiversity. Article upon article upon article worthily focused on human destruction, and how we can claw our way out of the mess we’ve created.
I had to dig deep to find anything on how we might have morphed through evolution to occupy a particular beneficial niche, yet one we have unfortunately abandoned since, in the first place.
Apparently, even our natural sciences have unwittingly contributed to the perception of humans being separate in nature, as the disciplines there necessarily hone in on narrow fields of study that exclude the ecological role of humans. And so, to find our answers, we must step into the world of anthropology.
Rebecca Bliege Bird and Dale Nimmo, Anthropologists at Pennsylvania State University, co-wrote an article published in Nature, Ecology & Evolution just this July entitled “Restore the Lost Ecological Functions of People.” In it, they outline that traditional place-based societies did indeed perform a role in the maintenance and restoration of ecosystem function. We contributed to the transport of seeds, and aerated the soil when we dug up tubers. They found instances of societies burning small plots of land to increase subsistence returns by exposing animal burrows. Nature provided us feedback that led to a fine-tuning of subsistence and social strategies. We indeed had a co-evolutionary relationship with the environment that supported us.
Interestingly enough (but most likely not a complete surprise), part of the loss of this system of feedback, was also the loss of indigenous cultures. “In many regions of the globe, the loss of place-based societies coincided with their replacement by other societies,” they write, “Subsequent changes in ecosystems are often attributed to the changes brought about by the new societies, overlooking the lost functions of the displaced.”
The Santa Fe Institute, an independent research center, published an article this February exploring humanity’s roles in ecosystems. We’re “super generalist predators,” come to find out, which means we’re able to eat a ton of different kinds of stuff, and can shift our meal plan according to what’s available or what needs a little recoup time. Their studies discovered the Aleut natives of Sanak Island in Alaska fed on an astonishing 122 of the 513 taxa in nearshore marine ecosystem. In practicing “prey-switching” to help stabilize their food webs, not once in 7,000 years of human habitation was there any evidence of long-term extinction.
We did, in fact, serve the role of ecosystem stabilizers. Now, we seem to do the catastrophically opposite.
The problem today is one of scale and scope. With our big ole brains we’ve learned to sidestep the required feedback system with our environment. We’ve isolated our food systems so far from their natural manner of occurring, that we no longer provide the services of seed dispersal, soil aeration, or increaser of landscape diversity. We’ve become distracted, overcome by convenience, addicted to strawberries from Mexico in January.
Now is our role to push all the creatures in the world, including ourselves, to extinction? We’re the asteroid of the modern day? A great fireball of destruction that will allow the planet to push the reset button and start over?
Or perhaps we exhibit a shade of evolution gone awry. We demonstrate what happens when a creature’s brain is too large in comparison to his heart or sense.
Certainly our ability or willingness to go back to place-based hunter-gatherer societies, before we began manipulating nature and causing such a mess, is slim to none save outright disaster, which we do seem to be heading for at great speed. I don’t think, however, disaster serves as any great consolation for us nor our plant and animal community members with whom we keep company.
So what to do? How do we get back to the garden, or rather – perhaps even better, that place of perfect synergy and co-evolution with the natural world that holds us?
Is it even possible for us to be “rewilded?”
(Stay tuned to the July 26 edition of Earth Muffin Memos for Part II of “Singing the Creek Alive.”)