Monday, 24 March 2014

The Balance of Trees and People

Fifty Eight People and a Tree 

(screen print, Joan Drew, 1964)

What is balance -- how does nature achieve this?  Let's look at the picture above.  I have been inspired by and reminded of this image for many years.  We currently have more trees than people on earth (thankfully.. presumably.. hopefully!).  So the one in the picture must be quite special.  There is a relationship between this tree and the 58 people.  It feeds them for example.  And they tend it.

So there is human ecology (or Social Ecology) and the ecology of Nature.  I'm not sure at what point they diverged, but it is unfortunate that they did.  Just as we need diversity of plant species and animal ones -- we need to have human diversity.  What if every one was just like me -- or like you (an individual reader)?  Just as all trees cannot be radiata pines, we desperately need to have people who look different, act different, sound different, think and feel different and believe differently.

The picture shows a joyous diversity of human types.  But the tree!  Let us have a few more we might be thinking/feeling right now.  How many trees does one person need to have in their mixed human-natural ecology?  Quite a few.

It has been written and said that North America and Australia at the time of European arrival had been carefully maintained by the first inhabitants.  It was commented that the landscape in both cases had a pleasing park-like aspect.  Such that the forests in areas where people also lived were open enough to walk or drive a buggy through.  However, following European arrival, untended patches near forests became dense, scrubby, impenetrable jungles, not like they used to be.

Fire was used by the aborigine and native american alike to thin out the undergrowth.  This also made it possible for herds of large animals to freely travel through the forested area and thus to be used as game animals.  However, it has been found that once the large animals are excluded the landscape suffers.  In Africa, herds of elephants were culled and the national parks where they used to live became degraded.

Thus, we find in the grand scheme of Nature/Humanity we have to balance the trees and the people with the large animals.  (Whether they be buffalo, kangaroos or elephants.)  Interestingly, before the arrival of the aborigine, numerous types of megafauna existed in Australia.  The timing of their disappearance was about 2 to 3,000 years after the arrival of humans [based on fossil and geological records].  We could say that they were hunted to extinction.  It is likely however that their habitat was altered to the point where they could no longer forage for the type of food they required.

When we alter the habitat of other creatures the consequences can be far-reaching.  In Australia, wet rainforests with abundant tree-species diversity (palms and pines included) have been almost universally replaced by eucalypt forests (gum trees).  These are adapted to a repeated burning regime (in a way that the rainforests that preceded them never were).

It is not that Australia's landscape cannot support a different mix of tree species than it has now (farms and gardens are ample proof of this), it is just that for historical reasons we have what we have.  This includes the human/social/cultural milieu.  Whilst it is common to engage in guilt/blame/shame (or the shifting of the above) over what has occurred to trees and people (and animals) in Australia and elsewhere, this is not really a firm foundation or a productive way to build our future.  Of course, trying to ignore history does not help.  It is all right to acknowledge what has happened and choose a different path.

My sense is that populations of us -- people -- must find a balance within the natural framework of trees and large animals that blanket the continent.  It used to be that indigenous people hollowed their dwelling places into the surrounding natural landscape -- rainforest for example.  Some still practice a type of agriculture based on rainforest clearings. 

This type of foreground/background reversal tends to work better than what is happening in the Amazon today.  (But which is the reversal?)  Having tiny remnant pockets of rainforest and vast cleared areas for grazing/farming or in some bizarre (but not uncommon) cases -- forestry -- does not seem to be conducive to a healthy ecosystem as a rule.  The fifty eight people clustering around a tree is somewhat dystopic in this regard and represents a desperate and undesirable situation if taken too literally (as a real ratio of trees and people).

I have lived in an orchard surrounded by forest and here is what I found.  Birds swarm your fruit trees and then return home to the forest to nest.  What I have to say about that is this.  The type of fruit in that orchard was vastly different to anything the birds would commonly find in their own environment. Of course it attracted them.  The buffer zone between raw forest and orchard can be carefully managed however.  Let us now talk of solutions!

You could include native/wild fruit species in a buffer zone that you create.  This would keep the birds occupied.  Also gradually taper and blend one into the other.  It is all about proportion.  Groves of sacrificial apple trees could merge into the forest margins.  You could play with the foreground/background concept.  Cultivated fruit trees are harder to find by predators when they blend into the background vegetation, not stand out in the foreground like gilt lettering on an engraved invitation.  This is the idea behind a food forest of mixed species -- confuse the predators.

We need to look at natural abundance.  One of the things I really wanted to look at in this article was the highly controversial topic of carrying capacity -- particularly in regard to human numbers.

It comes down to rights.  Who or what has the right to occupy a given area of land?  Do the birds have precedence over me, because I am a newcomer to their land?  Do the old rainforest species (palms, pines, etc.) have precedence over the gum trees (now the majority, formerly just one of many species)? Do the new pine plantations take precedence over the vast tracts of gum trees that were here 200 years ago?

Do people from one continent have precedence over any other because they seem to be multiplying more rapidly?  Or because they arrived earlier?  Who would like to be the one who determines this.

However, if there is balance, what can go wrong?  We can achieve a mixture, a blending and an integration.  Example.  Birds.  Tend to raise their offspring in a given area and soon the offspring learn where to find food.  It may be your orchard or mine.  But if humans also raised their offspring in a given area (such as indigenous people do) they would find the balance with the animal and plant species they co-exist with.  Human intelligence could come into play to train the birds to train their offspring not to find food in my orchard (or yours) but another suitable place that had been made for them.

What chance have we of achieving this if we humans have lost our ties to any specific area of land -- drifting rootlessly  -- changing habitats stochastically (including myself in this) during any given human lifetime?  The early agriculturalists and pastoral nomads as primitive as we might find them (our ancestors) at least had ties to land that spanned generations that we do not have (to anywhere near the same degree).

I am suggesting that human connection to land that spans multiple generations is the best way for us to find a balance with our natural surroundings.  We would not want to spoil it then.  But look after it beautifully!

1 comment:

  1. I would like to use this comment post to make some footnotes on the above text.
    Here are some resources for further investigation on the things just discussed.

    There clearly are competing theories about the demise of Australian megafauna species. For example, the same climate change (aridity, sea levels dropping, glaciation) may have contributed to both the arrival of people in Australia and large species extinction. Then again, people and megafauna may have co-existed for over 10,000 years in Australia. Such large animals are featured in dreamtime stories.

    The conclusion we draw will depend on the colour of the glasses we are wearing at the time.

    What interests me is that the large animals and the vegetation (wet sclerophyll forests) were in symbiosis. The loss of both were probably inextricably intertwined. What role did people play?
    Did fire increase through human intervention or was it of natural origin.. or both..

    Swidden agriculture based on traditional ecological knowledge and practice (TEKP) is thought to be a sustainable practice. However, not all slash and burn techniques are helpful. One key to sustainability seems to be keeping the clearings small (and thus in ecological balance). Then the surrounding forest acts as a reserve of natural resources (living material, water, soil, nutrients, etc.) to help regenerate the clearing once human activity ceases.

    Burning the clearing to ash seems fairly primitive compared to the ancient system of making charcoal from slashed vines, weeds and vegetable waste (food scraps for ex.) and adding this to the earth. The resulting soil, terra preta is the stuff of legends. Trees were less likely used to make charcoal as the only tools possessed were made of copper, and it is very hard to fell a tree with a copper axe. (1491, New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, Charles C. Mann, Vintage Books, NY, 2006)

    Arrival stories in Australia and North America can be found in the following books.
    (1491, as above) states that more properly Europe should be called the new world, since at the time of discovery by Europe, more people were inhabiting the Americas than Europe and advanced civilisations were developed much earlier in the Americas.

    (The Fatal Shore, The epic of Australia's founding, Robert Hughes, Knopf, NY, 1987)
    Details the good, bad and the ugly (mostly the latter two) of Australia's early days. Here I am interested in the original impressions the Australian land made upon those Europeans who came first (before other Europeans). It is the record of the condition in which they found the great southern land, and the canvas upon which they began to toil.

    The 18th century vision for Australia had been one of a farming paradise, given its warm clime and it was believed rich soil. How can we reconcile this naïve pre-conception with what was to happen on arrival of more and more Europeans and the blatant disregard for the original custodians of an entire continent?

    So a new vision will be needed that includes old and new, traditional and introduced, and is based in friendship.

    We could learn a lot from this man in the video (Geoff Lawton). Here is some information about food forestry on youtube. Thanks!

    Also, the post makes mention of pastoral nomads and agriculturalists in our (human) history. This reference comes from the book (The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin, Pan Books, London, 1988). Chatwin compares Australian aborigines with nomads elsewhere.