Sunday, October 16, 2016

Making Restoration Appropriate to the Environment

Over the last year or so my studies have taken a bit of a different turn. While I have always been passionate about building complete miniature ecosystems and including as many of the necessary forms of life as possible to make that happen, lately I have been looking at it from a larger scale. I have gone beyond the terrarium, beyond the garden. My studies have taken me into larger areas and my interests are to either restore ecosystems to as close as possible to a natural state or to create something that closely mimics their natural state, but with humans as a necessary component, with the natural system being both supported by and supporting the humans that live in it. In doing so, several things have become very obvious to me.

The first is that the usual scientific processes that use a reductionist thinking cannot be applied to natural systems. The ecosystem functions as a whole and cannot be reduced to anything that has any real meaning. That doesn’t mean it can’t be understood. There are certain guiding principles that the ecosystem follows that provide insight. As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the key principles is the cycling of nutrients. The carbon cycle must continue to cycle because the carbon cycle IS the energy cycle. If the carbon cycle stops cycling, the ecosystem starts to die. If the carbon cycle is accelerated the ecosystem thrives.  

The second thing that has become obvious to me is that there is one overriding core function that must be maintained for an ecosystem to function. As I mentioned, the cycling of nutrients must continue. A huge percentage of those nutrients are locked up in dead organic matter, mostly of plant origin. That organic matter must decompose through living processes. In so doing, it feeds the soil organisms and promotes life while cycling nutrients. But in order to break down naturally, it must be exposed to water. The bacteria and fungus that typically do the work cannot do the work without water. Often, even humidity in the air can be enough, but there must be water.

Of course, that begs the question: What about environments with inconsistent moisture? What about environments that don’t have enough moisture in the air to decompose organic matter for several months out of the year? I live in Phoenix, Arizona, and it rarely rains here between February and June. How does the organic matter decompose? The answer is that nature is resourceful. We tend to think of dead plant matter falling to the forest floor and decomposing among the rest of the leaf litter, but that isn’t the only method. What about in the stomach of a herbivore? It is moist and full of bacteria. Digestion and decomposition are almost the same thing. It turns out that in arid and semi-arid environments, that method is actually one of the primary means of decomposition in a natural, undisturbed arid environment.

That brings me to the third thing that has become obvious to me. I have become acutely aware of late about how people think about restoring environments. The most obvious example of this is when people say “We need to stop climate change now! We need to plant thousands of new trees!” As my perspective shifts, it becomes more obvious just how short sighted this viewpoint is, though it is simple to understand how it arose.

Google Earth is a great way to tell what sorts of environments there are. Zooming out to where you can see entire continents on the screen, it is easy to see the colors of various land masses. The green ones are areas that are subjected to consistent moisture, whereas areas that receive inconsistent moisture are shown in brown or tan. While the brown or tan areas cover around 60% of the planet, most of the heavily populated and highly scientifically relevant areas are in green areas. All of Europe, all of southeast Asia, the entire eastern United States and Canada, New Zealand, and the eastern coastlines of Australia are all solid green. So it makes sense that the thought leaders would look around outside their windows and say, hey, we need more trees. Those things soak up huge amounts of carbon and store it in their trunks.

The problem is, that solution simply doesn’t work for 60% of the Earth’s landmasses. The great grasslands won’t support a forest, and even if you could find a way to get it to grow, it would displace all the organisms for whom the grassland is their native habitat.

The grasslands have evolved to work with the inconsistent moisture. The interesting thing is that they actually sequester about the same amount of carbon as the forests do, but rather than storing it in the woody trunks of trees, they grasses use the seasonal moisture to have a sort of ebb and flow between above ground tissue and below ground tissue. Dryland grasses must take full advantage of the dry season. To do that, they store energy gained from last rainy season in their roots. At the beginning of the rainy season they sacrifice roots to push leaves towards the sky. Every time they do that, it has the effect of pumping decaying tissue, and the carbon that goes with it, into the ground. As this carbon builds up, it opens up the pores in the soil and the soil absorbs more water when it rains. This allows more grass to grow, and increases the effect of pumping more carbon into the ground, giving it more water holding capacity, onward and upward. But certain processes need to be observed to keep this process functioning correctly. It is easily disturbed.

Over the last several months, I have been working towards becoming certified in Holistic Management. This is a series of techniques developed by Allan Savory to help restore the great grasslands of the planet. Over the next several posts, I will be covering several of the key concepts from Holistic Management in detail. I believe it is worth sharing.