Journey 19 - NOTES ON ECOLOGY There are endless corollaries of the First Ideal, Thomas Jefferson’s Ideal, of Life, Liberty
and the Pursuit of Happiness. For instance, the survival of our species is clearly necessary for the life of any individual. The survival of our species depends on the general ecological health of Earth. It is hard to be more specific than that; still, the death of any species must be a warning. Even more important as a warning is the death of an entire eco-system, such as coral reefs, now bleached white in many parts of the world, or the fate of frogs, an entire genus that has survived hundreds of millions of years, only now to succumb to our modern industrial world, and we are not even sure why. We do know that they have parasites that cause growth deformities. Sometimes a new disease can come along and nearly wipe out a species, as we have seen with the fungal blight that destroyed the American Chestnut, and a different blight that nearly wiped out the American Elm. We also know that songbirds are disappearing from Eastern woodlands in the United States. To add to this miscellany of mysteries, we find a steady decline in the fertility of American men. Again, the reason is unknown. Is it due to trace amounts of some industrial chemical that does not break down in nature? It could be. This could be part of the problem with frogs and coral reefs. I propose that we allow no industrial chemical out of the laboratory until we can find or develop a bacterium that can break down that chemical. We must be very careful to control every new chemical. Everything necessary to dispose of a chemical must be in place before we allow any industry to use that chemical. We should apply the same rule to every industrial chemical that is already loose in the environment. If this brings a halt to “better living through chemistry,” I don’t care. Better that than the loss of coral reefs or the loss of male fertility. We know that sometimes, many times, the problem is loss of habitat. Therefore, I propose that we preserve the habitats we have, and restore those which have been lost, in so far as that is possible. We cannot bring back extinct species, but perhaps we can save those on the brink of extinction. Everyone has been talking about the rain forest. Except for a cold weather rain forest on the coast of Washington State, the US doesn’t have any rain forest. Let us worry first about our own marine, forest and prairie habitats that we are in danger of losing forever. Thus, I propose that we maintain a 200 mile sanctuary off the Ocean coasts of the US, where we allow no hunting of wild creatures, by anyone, ever again. I suspect we could easily persuade Canada, Mexico, Greenland and the Caribbean Islands to agree. Such a marine sanctuary would allow the stocks of whales, corals, and numerous varieties of fish to return to their Pre-Columbian level. This doesn’t mean giving up seafood. It means that all seafood used in the US must come from fish farms. The fish farms themselves are an ecological disaster in many cases. This is a relatively new kind of agriculture in this country, and we shall have to learn how to dispose of waste and how to keep penned up sea life from succumbing to disease or parasite. In the US, we have only very tiny portions of the original prairie or the original old growth forest. Prairie cannot survive grazing by domestic animals. We must immediately put a halt to the destruction of what small pieces of old growth forest and original prairie that still exist. I grew up on what was once prairie, but even then, back in the 40s and 50s, I knew of only one piece of virgin prairie. It was a prairie meadow cut once a year for prairie hay. We only mowed it for prairie hay.
Cutting prairie in late July or August may destroy some of the species, but most survive. A prairie is a complex ecology of hundreds of different plants, most of which bloom sometime in the growing season. Most people have no idea that you can never graze prairie with domestic livestock. Animals native to prairie, such as the Bison, clip the grass by biting it. This doesn’t harm the grass, because it grows from the bottom, not at the tips. However, a cow will wrap its tongue around a clump of grass and pull it up, roots and all. Goats and sheep graze everything right down to the roots. The only domestic animal that is not destructive of prairie is the horse because it clips the grass by biting it, rather than by pulling on it like cattle. The other fact about prairie that is generally unknown is that it is an ecology born of fire. Prairie consists in all and only those species of plants and animals that can survive the occasional prairie fire. The prairie dog is a species of gopher that can survive by crawling into its underground den. Likewise, with coyotes, wolves, and ground squirrels. Fire is necessary to keep down the weedy trees, such as Jack Oak and Red Cedar. If one drives around central Oklahoma, one sees nothing but useless Jack Oak and Red Cedar, growing on what was once prairie, then farmland, then abandoned. Across the whole vast prairie, people are vanishing from the countryside, and congregating in cities and towns. It is no longer possible to make a living on the prairie, and no one has been setting fires to keep down the weedy trees. This must change. I propose national and regional zoning rules. What was once prairie will be prairie once more. We must preserve mountain meadows and old growth forest, though magistrates could grant local exceptions. We could hire rural people still living on the land to return it to its original state. I propose voluntary compliance from the landowners. Wherever a sizable block of land has been created by voluntary compliance, university specialists in prairie ecology should head up a restoration effort, beginning with the removal of all roads, fences, and power lines, the burning of all trees, and followed by the planting of the precious few seeds of the myriad prairie plants still in existence. We must harvest seeds by hand, because each plant produces seeds in its own way, and in its own time. Hire the local rural people, who once tried to make a living on the prairie, and teach them how to hand harvest seeds, and how to sprout each one of them in a greenhouse. Cuttings instead of seeds might propagate many species. It will take a lot of time and a lot of effort to restore barren ranchlands to true prairie, but it is worth it. I know from experience that there is nothing more lovely than true prairie. The grass itself smells wonderful, in a spicy herbal way, quite unlike domestic grasses. True prairie will change week by week throughout the growing season, as different plants send up showy stalks of flowers. After frost, the Big and Little Bluestem will take on a purplish color that a color blind person might call “blue.” In the winter, the large grasses take on the color of gold and electrum. In February, it turns brown, and it is time to burn it. Prairie is the one native ecology I know from personal experience. Therefore, I shall say little about the other ecological zones. I have seen mountain meadows full of flowers. That is surely an ecological system we must preserve. I have been in national parks on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, where towering Hemlock trees create a wonderful living cathedral, with no brush or grass in the understory. Surely, we must preserve that. Let those who know what it was once like step forward and convince us all of the beauty and the value of the original ecological systems.
If you ask me, which is more valuable, the spotted owl or the logger, I will say “the spotted owl.” Value depends on scarcity. There are very few spotted owls and very few edible wild mushrooms left in the forest. There are lots of loggers, and they leave behind a blighted clearcut landscape, open to erosion on steep and naked slopes. After the topsoil is gone, nothing will ever grow there again but weeds. We should quit using wood as a building component. Galvanized steel should make up the framework, and the new steel roofing systems that look like shingles or slate should take the place of wood or asphalt or fiberglass shingles. Brick or stone or tiles should make up the exterior walls. Buildings should last forever, not just for the lifetime of a 30 year mortgage. Something we can all do to preserve the forest is to take away the market for wood products. I also advocate voluntary rather than involuntary compliance with ecological zoning rules. Give the local people steady jobs maintaining and reviving those ecological systems they once worked to destroy. Use explanation and persuasion, not force. There is another natural resource that we must preserve as a moral imperative and a matter of common sense and that is the human genome. There are plenty of “mad scientists” who want to tinker with the characteristic longevity of humans. Every species has characteristic longevity, determined by heredity. I don’t think it is an accident. Every species has the longevity it has found useful in the struggle for the survival of that species. And so it is with humans. We are an Ice Age species, living in the midst of a seemingly unending series of Ice Ages. Which do you think is more likely to survive, a species where almost everyone is old and almost no one is young, or the reverse? Only young adults can reproduce. Only the young can adapt to rapidly changing conditions, and that is almost a definition of the glacial part of an ice age. We happen to be in the interglacial part of an ice age, but it will soon come to an end, as climatic oscillations grow more violent. We have already seen the first of these oscillations in the Viking Warm period, the Little Ice Age from 1350 to 1850 and now another warm period, which will last for several centuries no matter what we do about greenhouse gases. The atmosphere is not a static pool that just accumulates greenhouse gases. CO2 is the very stuff of life, rapidly cycled through the biosphere. The actual amount of the rare trace gas CO2 (350 ppm) is a dynamic balance between the relative vigor of the animal and vegetable kingdoms. We know a lot about the last several ice ages. We have ice cores and ocean bottom cores stretching back beyond the 700,000 year Matayuma magnetic reversal. There have been 21 ice ages over the past 2 million years. We know that carbon dioxide correlates with global temperature, but which is cause and which is effect? Tectonic and astronomical forces dictate the coming and going of the glaciers. If carbon dioxide declines in cold periods, it is because animal life declines in the cold, while the plankton are much less affected. Despite that, I am all in favor of signing the Kyoto accords, and immediately putting them in to effect. No one can predict the day, but the time will come when demand permanently exceeds supply for oil and natural gas, so it only makes sense to start working now on practical alternatives. Decisions have to be made. Which is the best storage medium for energy, hydrogen, LNG or methanol? I think methanol, since it is liquid at normal temperatures and pressures. Instead of directly burning coal in power plants, we should convert coal to methanol, getting rid of the
mercury which pollutes the oceans (and predator fish) and getting rid of sulfides and particulates which spoil our view of the night time skies.