Sunday, June 10, 2012

Man vs. Nature

Yesterday I did what I call a Big Mow, which means riding around on the tractor for a good 2 1/2 hours, followed by cleaning up with the push mower and the weed whacker to whatever extent I feel up for. This happens maybe four or five times a year, with more frequent maintenance of my front lawn and orchard. The jungle strives relentlessly to reclaim what I have won at great expense and labor, but I am always working not just to hold the line, but to push it outward.

I've thrown some grass seed around my front lawn, but otherwise I just mow whatever wants to be there. Oh yeah, I did seed some white dutch clover when I first cleared the land, on the advice of a farmer friend, because it fixes nitrogen and will help build up the soil over the years. It's established itself pretty well in some places.

Mowing promotes a grassy regime, even without further intervention. But the native grasses of New England have been competing with introduced European turf grasses and hay now for 500 years. The native grass that wants to grow here is nimblewill. Some hayseed has blown in from nearby fields, and other grasses form sod patches here and there. The dandelions and plantain weeds, by the way, are also European imports.

No doubt there are among you some who, like Ted Kaczynski, would object to my endless battle to subdue nature -- with the use of fossil fuel, no less. (I could get some sheep or goats if I wanted to be a bit less offensive.) But it turns out to be more complicated than that.

The southern New England landscape was dominated by meadows, with only remnant forest, for hundreds of years, after the Europeans had cleared it for pasture and fuel. And the faunal regime adapted. Many of our most charismatic species are actually in decline as the woods have reconquered the landscape, including the eastern cottontail rabbit and many species of birds. I posted a picture of a barred owl a couple of years ago. In fact we have at least two of them, that we sometimes hear yelling at each other, presumably over territorial boundaries. They profit from the voles that depend on the grassland I maintain.

The same goes for my grass snakes, toads, and who knows what else. The fringe of the woods is full of raspberries that I'm sure are helping to support songbirds. In short, the diversity of ecological niches created by human intervention is essential to the New England we have come to know and consider "natural." There was nothing "wrong" with the vast, unbroken forest of the Indians, but that wasn't exactly natural either. They kept the understory thin by lighting fires, so they could travel and hunt more easily; and they created small, temporary clearings by girdling trees, for gardening.

Take away the people, whatever their form of society and technological regime, and you have a different nature. Every creature modifies its environment. Can you truly say we have more impact than the oak trees, or the deer, or the earthworm?


  1. When I see oak trees flying airplanes, deer dropping bombs on other continents, and earthworms driving cars then I will know the answer to answer your question.

  2. Yep, we're certainly changing things, fast, and everywhere. All I'm really saying is that we will have an impact as long as we're here, but we're unlike all the other critters in that we're capable of knowing what we're doing and exercising wisdom. So far we haven't, alas.

  3. I knew that was what you meant, I just couldn't resist typing the words "oak trees flying airplanes." Yes, some humans are capable of exercising wisdom, just plainly not enough... EVER.