I’m on my porch in a suburbanized sort of nature. A few yellowed oak and elm leaves shift through the wind and spiral to the ground. The pine-strewn floor catches my eye—many more fallen leaves than just a week ago! I note how many of the deciduous trees stabilizing my front lawn begin their near-synchronous letting of chlorophyll. Orangish red. Reddish orangish yellow. Autumn approaches.
With wind, water, creature, and time, the leaves on the ground will decompose. They’ll biodegrade, enmesh with the soil beneath, and march toward a new life as life-affirming humus. Dirt.
Insects and earthworms will make a home in this substance. Dozens of species of flora will set roots down in this stuff. While trees slip into hibernation, their stately presence enhances other life. Nature improving nature.
Traditionally, we humans occupy places. We’re really good occupiers. And by the look of things, we end up doing virtually anything BUT improving nature.
Yet, with decomposing leaves on my mind, I recalled something a motley team of academics recently discovered. They revealed that coastal First Nations peoples in Canada’s British Columbia region—a culture that lived in the temperate rain forest for 13,000 years!—enhanced the vitality of the area’s forests.
That’s right. It seems these peoples’ harvesting of shellfish, disposal of shell middens along the forest floor, and fastidious use of fire contributed to taller, wider and healthier trees. The shells slowly released beneficial calcium into the soil. Their fires helped raise the soil’s pH to a healthy level. Humans improving nature.
This got me thinking. Can—or do—modern humans ever enhance nature? That is, do we do anything besides deplete, devour, deteriorate, degrade?
Not only that, do we improve nature through means other than conservation? We are adept at setting aside land and marsh. Hello, Yellowstone! Hi, Everglades!
Yet despite their beauty and ethical qualities, these conserved areas exorcise the human. They act as nature’s museums: look but don’t touch. Pass through but don’t dwell.
Then in places we do dwell, we tend to promote “green”, or “sustainable” design. Think LEED-certified buildings. Contemplate compact cities. Ponder porous parking lot pavement. Nonetheless, these designs are simply less destructive than the status quo. They are “low impact”, rather than nature-enhancing.
This still leaves us wondering: can—or do—modern humans ever enhance nature? As we’ll see, yes, indeed they do.
Consider ranchers in the Northern Great Plains who work with cattle to emulate the roaming behavior of the vanished bison. Their grazing, stamping cattle produce manure. This manure enhances soil quality and preserves the grasslands. The grasslands provide habitat and food for sundry species of endangered birds and mammals.
Speaking of supporting animals, permaculturalists repair soil, produce food for families and communities, and provide habitat for all kinds of creatures. Many of these same folks install biodegradable toilets or “gray water” systems that help to fertilize the land and ramp up its food and shelter-related productivity.
And inspiring organizations like Portland-based Depave compel communities to “reconnect urban landscapes to nature.” They do this by tearing up surplus pavement and creating gardens of the playground and community and rain varieties.
So, can—or do—modern humans ever enhance nature? Yes, and in many ways too. However, we can always do more. See through the greenwashing commercialism of shopping “local” or “with a conscience.” Question the “sustainability” of solar and wind “farms.” Conceive of ourselves as a part of an integrated whole. The real, physical world.Follow SethLaJ307