For Earth Day: The Direction of Nature

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, April 25, 1997

As we consider our environment on Earth Day, we need to determine what is important and how we will judge our success.

The constant in our environment is change. Is that change toward greater fertility and diversity nearly everywhere, or is it in the opposite direction?

Just north of our farm is an abandoned hayfield. It hasn't been farmed in the true sense for the twenty-five years I've lived next door. It was cut annually for hay until some time in the last decade, but nothing was returned to the field to compensate for the removal of the hay, and the minerals and organic matter it contained. With this removal, the soil became less fertile and more acid. The hay became less nutritious, with more unpalatable weeds. Eventually, the haying stopped.

Now that this field isn't cut, it is filling in with a variety of vegetation. Cedar trees and russian olive shrubs are the largest and most prominent plants, with spacing and patterns a fractal ecologist will understand. These are pioneer species, sturdy and sun-loving. The berries they produce attract mammals, whose paths criss-cross the field, and birds, including pheasants and wild turkeys. The wildlife leaves its manure, which boosts the fertility of the soil. Blueberries, dewberries, multiflora roses and cherries grew from seeds in bird and mammal droppings.

These new plants provide shade from the summer sun and shelter from the winter winds, pleasant features that weren't there before. As these pioneer species moderate the climate of the field, seeds contributed by hickory, oak, crabapple, ash and dogwood trees along the stone walls will begin their growth into a forest, eventually shading out the cedars and russian olives. And all the while, the fertility of the soil is being built up as a growing population and diversity of soil organisms decomposes leaves, needles and manure.

Harvest without return was destroying this field. Left alone, nature is healing it; moving it steadily in the direction of greater fertility, and an ability to capture and store more of the sun's energy. Along the way it provides food and good homes for ever more living things. We could speed up the healing with minerals, manures, seeds or plants.

Although a well-managed hayfield, which includes legumes and has minerals and nutrients replaced, can remain productive for years, that poorly cared-for hayfield might be regarded as a severe injury to the native forest of Connecticut. It is healed, that is, returned to forest, by the diversity of life in the area, in dynamic response to sunlight, rainfall and temperature conditions.

If a tree or shrub is removed, its space will be quickly taken. Like the field's recovery, or the recovery of the forests of New England after the last ice age, given the climate of our region and its genetic resources, a forest will be restored. The time it takes depends on the size of the wound, and other complicating factors. Areas which are very large, are paved or have been doused with chemicals may take much longer, but they too will heal; they too will return to forest.

Which brings us to another important notion. It is not so much that the Earth is in trouble, that we need to save the Earth. It, after all, evolved from a lifeless, rocky sphere, and has recovered from asteroid impacts and glaciations without our help. We and our ability to live here, and the natural systems which sustain us are what's at risk. The vast majority of all the plant and animal species that have ever lived on earth are now extinct.

In light of the rapidly growing population of the Earth, we need to firmly set our sights on an environment which is growing in diversity and fertility, and will be able to continue to provide food and shelter for a variety of beings, including ourselves.

As Wendell Berry says at the end of his book,The Unsettling of America, "For our healing we have on our side one great force: the power of Creation, with good care, with kindly use, to heal itself."

Happy Earth Day!

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

This page and its contents are copyright © 1997 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.