Lately, there’s been a lot of focus on carbon and how to get it out of the atmosphere and back into the ground but there are other important cycles of Mother Nature that we might look at. Phosphorus. Nitrogen. Oxygen. Water. . ..
There’s a great book out there titled Water. Written by (aptly named) Alice Outwater, the book is a natural history of that liquid that is 50-60% of our human bodies. Outwater begins the book with a chapter on beavers. The continental US of A used to have 200 million beaver but due to fashion statements (beaver hats) and trade and other such human elements that keystone species has been decimated. We now have approximately 10 million beaver.
Well! Beside being really cute, beavers are also very busy creatures, hardworking. American Indians called them the “sacred center” of the land. Beavers move water and stop it by building dams that create ponds and wetlands that supply habitat for diverse species, not just one. One species emanating out energy that has ramifications far beyond itself.
So do humans. We have a center, too. We are human-centric. Our focus is one species. Us. We dominate and put ourselves above the others. Maybe not individually but in the big picture, we have forgotten how much we are a part of an interconnected and, yes, sacred energy. One species, one strand in the web of life. One single thread. How much can it support before it breaks?
Wetlands, like healthy soil, soak up water and let it slowly seep out, filtering the water, preventing erosion and flooding. Wetlands are home to myriad plants and animals. Freshwater wetlands are rated as the most valuable land-based ecosystem, serving as the “earth’s kidneys”.1 A study at University of Rhode Island “measured just one of the positive benefits of dams: They can help remove up to 45 percent of harmful nitrogen from streams and creeks.2
With the loss of those millions upon millions of beavers, their dams have collapsed. The water is no longer filtered but silts up on the sides of the rivers, clogging them. Wetlands are gone and with them the species they housed.
“If each of those (300 million) pre-Columbian beavers had built only a single arce of wetlands, then an area of more than 300,000 square miles—a tenth of the total land area of the country—was once a beaver-built wetland.”3
I wonder how beaver get along with rats? If beaver were introduced to the NYC rats that are now eating through cement, maybe they’d start a commune outside of New York City, build a wetland that would lower the destruction of all the storm surges and water events upcoming. But I digress.
Outwater goes on to write about how we’ve taken out the forests. About half of the contiguous United States was once old-growth forests.4 Forests hold fabulous numbers of species. They hold water because trees take up water (as well as carbon!) in their leaves and roots and transpire it slowly. Old growth forests are important as they hold not just young trees but middle aged and old ones. Lower, middle and upper stories of habitat for lots of animals. They hold carbon in their bodies, thereby keeping it out of the atmosphere. The bigger the trunks and denser the wood—a.k.a. old trees—the more carbon dioxide the tree sequesters.
Trees, just hanging out and waving in the breeze, cool the earth. They clean the air. Each mature tree produces about a day’s supply of oxygen for one of us. They block wind which is why we miss trees up here at Darwin’s View. They provide food and hold soil. And that’s just a few of the things they do.5
One tiny concern Outwater mentions in the book is not, per se, the fact that currently the total amount of primeval forest is 3 percent of what it was: 6,250 square miles in total. “It amounts to a single tract of land 60 miles long and 100 miles wide out of all this great land, and we’re quibbling over how fast to cut it.”6 Nor that we have cut down the strong, tall healthy trees thereby taking their genetics out of the evolutionary process. But that “[if] we continue whittling away at the last small action of old-growth forests, we will also lose the bio-diversity necessary to bring them back.”7
She moves on to the consequences of our human built dams. And the destruction of grasslands, those swathes of diverse grasses full of species, not least the keystone prairie dogs, those grasslands that colonialists, in their brilliance (sic) and hubris, would call deserts and barren lands.
Outwater in her book shows the interlocking codependence (in a good way) of the water cycle in its physical beingness. It’s a web. Everything there for a reason which is kind of ironic because humans are always questioning and wondering and sometimes bemoaning “oh, what’s the meaning of life? Why do we exist? What’s the point? Is there a point? Do I exist?”
We have become lost in “I”. Thus the “we” is in danger of extinction.
A web of cycles that are webs. Water. Oxygen. Carbon. Nitrogen. Phosphorus8 which is essential to life and well on the way to running out if we don’t start overseeing its production, use and waste.
Depressing or enlivening? Crisis or opportunity? How do you view this?
Are you attending your local Climate Strike on Friday, September 20th?
Now or never?
ACT. Attitude Change Time. What are your priorities? We all have them but, like nature’s web, we are all connected and need to support each other and the kids who are marching are marching for the future. Let’s march with them.
ACT. Action. Get involved.
And every day look around you. At the painfully evanescent beauty of the earth with all its heartbreak and past glory. Let’s love it.
3 Water by Alice Outwater @1996 p.32-33
4 Water p. 37
6 Water p. 49
7 Water p. 50.