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Loss of Wild Plants

The steady disappearance of wild plants in our region, like elsewhere, is happening quietly. Most of us don’t even notice it, much less care about it. Just as with other forms of environmental damage, people generally only pay attention when the damage is presented in the context of public health and economic losses.

When we think of the environment, we often think of its recreational value. In the U.S., most federal and state land-management agencies are built upon this idea. They support plant and animal wildlife, but often for the pleasure of people. They stock game fish species into rivers and streams for recreational fishing, and they manage for game species of land animals — not just deer but waterfowl, elk, even black bear. This recreational aspect of public lands management has to compete with another but equally utilitarian management imperative: large-scale logging and grazing operations.

When it comes to county parks, here too, people assume that the parks are there to serve their recreational interests. These parks are for soccer fields, ball fields, golf courses, and for activities such as horseback riding, mountain biking, rock climbing, canoeing, fishing, and swimming. Nature is reduced, in this perspective, to a mere resource to be consumed at whim.

It is true that there are many thoughtful and committed land managers at every level of government. Many of these people are committed to conservation for its inherent value, and virtually none of them is working with resources adequate to the job. Recreation is where the big money generally goes — because that’s what the public usually cares most about.

One consequence of this misallocation of resources is the steady, quiet loss of wild plants, and thus the weakening of natural ecosystems.

I realize — although I hate to admit it — that the loss of even large numbers of wild plant species would likely have zero effect on the way most of us live our lives. Most of us would probably find very little amiss in a world without wildness. There might still be plenty of appealing green landscapes — they just wouldn’t be natural. And taking things out of nature, helping ourselves to space, water, food, fuel, and so on, with very little thought for the effects on natural communities — that’s how we’ve always lived. That’s the norm.

But is this really the best we can do? Are human beings really only just creatures of their own immediate needs?

I’m not that cynical. I think we can do better, and I think that we can learn something about ourselves by taking a closer look at those wild plants. In their natural habitats, however broken up the areas might have become, those plants can tell us about both the sad effects of our own actions and about the resiliency of the wild. In pockets of wild areas throughout the region, diverse assemblages of native plants have coalesced together to form relatively robust and stable communities. Even abandoned fields, if left relatively undisturbed, may eventually work their way to a healthy, semi-wild state.

Let’s take a look at more intimate and personal relationships that unite each and every life on earth. We take for granted to live in this oxygen-rich planet. All the living things, even microbes, on earth breathe. Oxygen is perhaps one of the most transformative elements and its electrons are eager to interact. In each exchange of air, our bodies experience chemical reactions with oxygen. Each time we breathe in, a tiny portion of air becomes part of us. Each time, we breathe out, a tiny portion of us becomes part of the air. Imagine this: all living things on earth interact with one another through breathing! It’s an intimate kind of relationship. And whether we’re aware of it or not, we are interconnected with everything else in this and many other ways.

Here’s one more thing to consider. We still know little about the Earth as a whole — about its initial formation, the origin of its oceans, its tectonic plates, the formation of its crust, of its churning molten core, its hot and cold cycles, and the origin of its life. Earth science is still in its infancy. Most of the things that we now know have been discovered only in the last several decades. This remarkably slow development stemmed partly from the way scientific research had been conducted until recently. For instance, geology was thought to have little to do with biology and vice-versa; mineralogists didn’t think to look at the changing nature of minerals when they interact with microbes, plants, and early animals. Apparently, for more than two centuries, mineralogical research has focused on static physical and chemical properties — perhaps in part because much of the research was being done for the mining industries. In retrospect, it’s almost as if ecology — the study of how living things interact with each other and with their environment — didn’t exist. Scientists from all these different disciplines had not bothered to work together to get the whole picture.

Let me give you a couple of interesting examples. One very interesting and very recent line of inquiry concerns the coevolution of the geosphere and the biosphere. From the very beginning, it seems, life has influenced geology and geology has influenced life. When this idea was first proposed in 2006 (by geochemist Martin Kennedy of the University of California at Riverside), it was received with a certain amount of skepticism. But his findings have since been corroborated in many ways. I recently read an interesting book on the subject, The Story of Earth, by Robert Hazen, a scientist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Geophysical Laboratory and Professor of Earth Science at George Mason University. Hazen mentions a crucial example from the late Neoproterozoic (about 540 million years ago), in which aquatic microbes very efficiently converted solid rock into soft clay and thus managed to colonize coastal landscapes. Those colonies, in turn, released enormous quantities of free oxygen through photosynthesis, thereby giving rise to atmospheric oxygen. The decomposition of rock by these microbes made breath possible.

Later, when land plants arose, the weathering of surface rock, such as basalt, granite, and limestone, increased dramatically. The mechanism was plant roots; the result was the formation of soils. Roots attacked rock; the rock weathered and mixed with the plant debris; eventually fungi made their way in to grow on the plant debris; some fungi eventually adapted to live in symbiosis with the plants, infusing nutrients into their roots in exchange for energy-rich carbohydrates. Soils grew thicker, and the whole complex affected the way that water moved through the landscape, and further altered the atmosphere.

You can take a similar approach with contemporary plant ecology, which looks at the interrelation between plants and their environment. Plant ecologists look at soil, water, temperature, light, atmospheric composition, fire, and so on. Plant ecology is very much a regional discipline. Over and over again, we see how geography molds plant communities and how it is, in turn, molded by them. You cannot understand a natural community unless you understand its geology. You can’t separate the plants from the rocks.

Let’s pause and gather our breath here. What do these scientific gains have to offer conservation? And what about our own, less scientific observations? We know that, despite its degraded state, wildness is still nearby; we know that we are a part of that wildness — and we know that we are ignorant of much of Nature’s complexity.

No doubt you could draw more than one set of conclusions from all this, but from my own focus, on plant community conservation, here’s what I see.

I see, first, some practical opportunities. Now that we know that there is a powerful connection between geology and plant community composition, we should make sure that our restoration work takes that into account. Here’s a typical example: if an uncommon plant species occurs naturally only on a particular mineral substrate, we cannot “restore” it by planting it all over the place, on all sorts other substrates. That obviously would not be natural.

But I see, also, an opportunity to make an important adjustment in the way we live. I believe that we need to relearn the value of restraint. When it comes to my own field, I hope that we can learn to refrain from introducing plants of uncertain provenance into wild areas. Let’s refrain from bringing cultivars of native plants into the wild just because they “perform well.” And most important of all, let’s refrain from disturbing things when we don’t need to, because we really don’t know what we’re dealing with. A little humility wouldn’t hurt us. Let’s admit our ignorance and learn to look beyond our own convenience.

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Banner: Late October in a mixed stand of hickories, oaks, and American beech at Fountainhead Regional Park, on the northern shore of the Occoquan River, in Fairfax County, Virginia. Photo by Chris Bright. 

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