Monday, September 29, 2014

Fundamentals of Conservation, Part 2 "Serving with" Creation – Article #1: History is Important

As we walk the path of life, we each discern meaning, purpose, and priorities from an understanding of our origin, family history, and eternal destination.  Within this broader framework, those of us who want to practice conservation within our particular place on planet Earth should consider the geologic and climatic history of the place in question, the present dynamics at work within it, and the most probable trajectory for the place in the the future. 

In three previous Oikonomia articles on “Fundamentals of Conservation” in April, May, and June, respectively, under Part 1 “
Serving With
Our Creator,”  I emphasized the principle that intimacy with God gives a conservationist the basis for rightly valuing God’s creation.  Right values in turn stir a joyful passion that motivates a conservationist to “serve creation” by serving with God.   Now, in Part 2, entitled “Serving With Creation” I want to emphasize that intimacy with God gives us a disposition that submits to God’s natural revelation (as perceived in creation) and to His special revelation (as perceived in Scripture) so that we can learn from creation and conserve it for God’s glory.  I call this "serving with" creation.   It begins with an emphasis on learning the history of the place we wish to conserve.

The man in tattered clothes trudged tiredly over the crushed limestone that stretched out before him along the railway as far as he could see.  While making his way from Xenia eastward to Columbus that afternoon, he had napped in the shade of an old depot bearing the name “Cedarville.”  Now at dusk, the homeless man wearily followed the rails onward past the South Charleston station.  For miles, the railway had run alongside U.S. Highway 42.  Now, in the quiet darkness, he trudged with laboring steps as the railway bordered fields of corn, soybeans, and an occasional pasture.   As weariness began to overtake our wanderer, he aimed his steps from the sharp limestone to a nearby Bur Oak tree.  After pressing a worn, cloth bag containing his only possessions against the base of the oak to pillow his head, he reclined wearily and fell into a deep sleep.

The morning awakened the man with a gentle, periodic whirring sound.  He opened his eyes to see two Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds hovering near a cluster of beautiful red flowers. Unbeknown to our homeless friend, Royal Catchfly is only one of several unique wildflower species once common in large treeless areas of western and southwest Ohio.   As the sun rose higher in the sky, he made his way toward London, OH, at the time a bustling center of livestock auctions.  Along the way, he observed other colorful wildflowers with now-familiar names such as Ohio Spiderwort, Culver’s Root, Prairie Coneflower, and Prairie Dock; and grasses now known as Big Bluestem, Switchgrass, and Indian Grass.

The "Prairie Peninsula" resulting from the Post-Glacial
dry period which caused eastward migration of prairie.
That our homeless wanderer should happen to walk through these historic prairie communities was about as unplanned as the amazing events that produced them in the first place.  Instead of being the result of a deliberate, horticultural or landscaping plan, the historic prairie areas in the Midwest owe their existence to unplanned climatic and economic factors.  These factors are traced back to a post-glacial dry period during which the Great Plains prairie had extended eastward into the Midwest.  As the prairie marched eastward, it occupied landscapes too dry or too wet for forest communities.  Meanwhile, the deciduous forest retreated even further eastward into the Allegheny Plateau.

As centuries passed, the dry post-glacial climate gradually changed to one that provided adequate rainfall to support the westward return of forests to the Midwest.  However, the forest was unable to completely colonize some of the unsuitable sites.  Many of these sites retained the Great Plains plant community and were sometimes interspersed with woody species like Bur Oak, Hazelnut, and Sumac in drier sites; and, with sedges and rushes in wetter sites.  Early settlers of SW Ohio referred to these grassy, treeless areas with names like the Madison Plains, Darby Plains, and Selma Plains.

With the colonization and westward movement of American settlement, the second unplanned cause of the historic prairie remnants commenced.  The 19th century saw the construction of railroads across the Midwest, and the grassy areas were handily traversed without the extra labor of felling trees.  However, grassy areas of the “wet prairie” type often presented the construction crews with the challenge of providing extra “fill dirt” and proper drainage.    Farmers were able to cut the thick, prairie sod using the moldboard plow newly invented by John Deere.  As a result, they converted most of the remnant prairies of the Midwest into crop fields.  Sadly, the diverse prairie flora was eliminated from all but the unplowed areas, mainly railroad right-of-ways and cemeteries.
Aside from our homeless, railway wanderer, adventurous boys, and the railroad workers, few people over many years would have observed the unique, historic, prairie wildflowers and grasses along this lonely stretch of railway.  Yet surprisingly, it was the railroad workers who unintentionally participated in sustaining the historic prairie remnants along the railways of western and SW Ohio.  During hot summer days, passing railroad workers or passengers would commonly toss cigarettes and cigars into the dry rail-side vegetation.  Often the dry vegetation and organic litter would burst into flames resulting in extensive wildfires along the railroad.  Periodic fires over the years favored the prairie herbs and grasses at the expense of most woody plants, except for species like Bur Oak with its thick, fire-resistant bark.

Approximate locations of historic prairie (colored) each
surrounded almost entirely by forest.
Today, remnant prairie wildflowers add glorious color to the Prairie Grass Trail bikeway that now occupies the old Columbus-Cincinnati railway along which our homeless man once trudged.  The Rails to Trails Program provides hundreds of miles of bike trails, many of which bring bicyclists and hikers into contact with the rich flora of prairie remnants once viewed by only a few people.  However, we should note that the attractive prairie wildflowers along the trail will not survive without deliberate attempts to manage these plant communities.  How can these prairie wildflowers be preserved?  The answer rests on two important considerations.

The first consideration can be understood if you enjoy the thrill of visiting and revisiting a favorite “natural area?” Although we love them, we must realize that these areas are not “natural.”  And, we ought not to view them as a prehistoric Garden of Eden existing in a static condition for eons of time until humans arrived and caused the landscape around them to be “unnatural.”  To illustrate, remember that the historic prairie remnants of west-SW Ohio owe their existence to “climate change”—changes in climate across North America that occurred long before humans had arrived in significant numbers.  Therefore, we must use the term “natural” guardedly and with an understanding that every landscape and its resident biotic community is in the midst of a dynamic relationship in the midst of a changing climate, soil, and surrounding land use.

Aldo Leopold challenged us to reappraise “things unnatural, tame, and confined in terms of things natural, wild, and free?” But again we must realize that the terms “natural, wild, and free” imply a definable, static, pre-historic state, untainted until humans arrived.  To further illustrate, fire has likely been a “natural part” of prairie and savanna communities long before significant human intervention.  After all lightning, volcanic activity, and spontaneous combustion can start fires.  Consequently, the historic prairie remnants are an unintended consequence of “natural” forces in nature but they do not exist in a static, “natural” state. 

Prairie remnant community in Madison Co., Ohio with a
Royal Catchfly population. Note Bur Oak (rear center).
Prairie Grass Trail is visible on left.
Our first consideration leads us to the second point which is related to managing historic plant communities.  If “natural areas” are neither natural nor static, but rather moving targets then in fact, they are not something we can preserve.  Instead of preservation, our effort as land stewards must be aimed at conservation. That is, to con-serve, or “serve with” this particular place in God’s creation in light of an understanding of the dynamic relationships at work in creation.  Instead of land stewards devising plans to preserve plant communities based upon some preconceived notion of what is (or was) natural, we must “go there and learn” the dynamics that have operated and are now operating within these communities.  The understanding gained from this approach can help us predict the trajectory of change being driven by changes in climate, soil, and related landscape dynamics.

We must not fault our homeless friend who wandered along the railway observing prairie wildflowers and grasses with no idea of their history or current requirements for survival.  However, those of us who hope to manage the historic remnant prairie communities must avoid being found at fault ourselves for not realizing that they have been forged by a history of dynamic changes and are even now in the midst of dynamic change.  Remnant management that respects these factors will be the subject of my second article of Part 2, “Serving With Creation.”