Managing nature

Should we attempt to ‘manage’ nature or is it best to let the natural world take care of itself, and to avoid human intervention as far as possible? It’s an interesting question, and one I think it is worth poking around in a bit.

Firstly, for this to make sense, we have to assume that nature is separate from humanity and that anything humans do must be at odds with nature, rather than part of it. Moorland and meadows in the UK exist as a consequence of humans farming animals over thousands of years. We’ve been doing this long enough that many landscapes in Europe are shaped by our presence, and many species have evolved a little bit to utilise what we do. There are woodland flowers that just never grow if no one coppices the woods to let in the light.

Secondly, nature is slow to adapt, and very happy to adapt by letting things die out. We have unbalanced many natural systems, often by taking out top level predators. I recall a tale of a place that, on returning its wolves found the mountainsides became glorious with flowers because they were no longer being cropped. Often we don’t know the knock on effects of our unbalancing are, and in re-balancing, we learn valuable lessons.

Thirdly, in leaving nature to sort itself out, we may let ourselves off the hook. It is worth remembering that the desire to manage otter populations (born of a desire to hunt them) alerted us to the dire state of our water systems and the need for a human clean-up program. When we’re trying to manage nature, we are, I suggest, more likely to be aware of and taking responsibility for our own impact.

Fourthly, managing nature often means trying to change spaces – sometimes that means attempting to undo what humans have done to them, sometimes it means creating habitat from scratch to serve a need. Planting trees, clearing silted ponds, re-establishing wetland, removing invasive species like rhododendron and Japanese knotweed, putting up nesting boxes, creating otter holts – these are all attempts at managing nature. They replace habitat we have destroyed, and they give vulnerable species a fighting chance.

Humans interact with the rest of the world in all things. Mostly we are careless about the needs of other life forms, and we cause widespread habitat destruction and loss of species. In many places, we have been a presence for so long that we are part of the landscape and there is not letting it revert to some imagined ‘natural’ state without losing diversity that way. A stand of trees may look natural, but if what you had before was a grassland maintained by grazing, and full of rare orchids, then the ‘natural’ reverting to a stand of trees means losing the orchids, and the insects who lived in the grass.

We have created a relationship with the rest of nature. If we view ourselves as custodians, duty bound to take care of the land, I think we’ll do a better job of not being destructive. The risk in imagining nature will take care of itself if we leave it alone, is that we fail to recognise the scale on which we are not leaving it alone in the first place. There are fairly pristine landscapes out there, it would be fantastic if we could leave them alone, but our pollution gets everywhere, so not interfering even in places we never see is going to require some effort.

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About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. View all posts by Nimue Brown

3 responses to “Managing nature

  • Christopher Blackwell

    I often tell people that we are not destroying we are merely making it ore interesting. Now of course whether we can still live in this new interesting nature remains to be seen.

    Part of the problem is believing the changes we make in nature do not have a affect on ourselves as well. The other may be the idea that the chafes can be reversed. In many cases they cannot.

    There area that I live was grassland in 1881 with quit a bit more wildlife such as antelope, rivers that flowed much of time, and grass knee high to a horse. The came the ranchers in many case corporate ranchers financed by European money. Rail road made distant ranches possible ad this years profit to long term effect on the grasslands got rid of the grass. Farming was done near the rivers.

    By the 1920s well irrigated farming spread. In fact anywhere you see early flat land was once farms. But most of the ground water was ancient water left here a millii years ago when this was a land of huge lakes. the rain water each year could to eel up with the use of he group water. Pecan orchards were watered by blooding the entire orchard. Eve the row irrigation of the rest of the crops perhaps half of the water evaporated not doing the crops any good at all.

    Now the land is desert most of the old farms are gone and we lose more farms each year with the towns buying up the ground water rights of the farmers as fast as it can. Wells fail more often. Now farming is more and more none plowed and drip water irrigated but one goes a thousand feet straight down to get enough even then for farming.

    Two years ago very cold winters froze and destroyed most of the cactus the drought did to let any grow back from the roots. With the continued drought even the sturdy Creosote Bush ad even the more sturdy Mesquite Bushes are suffering with some with less that a third of the leaves they used to have ore dead limbs and a sickly grey green instead of the bright green. So on we head to perhaps a stony desert in the future and the is no way to bring this back to the grass land this was. So much of the deserts of the world are an helped into beaching deserts.

    By the way the damage that made the moors of England goes way back to the use of stone axes. The last of our old forests, world wide. are being cleared ad there ail be now way to recreate them. Most of what we call forest here in the United States are tree farms of fast growing quick profit trees, nothing like the mixed forests of the past.

    No I thin it is a illusion that we can repair the damage and we ought to start deciding how we humans can live in this wasted world we have created that is likely to get far worse before it even begins to change around again. We are taking not thousands of years but millions of years. I wonder if humans will survive long enough to see that healed world. Even then it will to be the world that we changed.

    • Nimue Brown

      I entirely agree with you- and it is a critically important point that we forget the degree to which we are also doing this to ourselves. I still think we have to try, and that any efforts to undo the damage done have to be worth making, alongside every effort to stop further destruction.

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