As I write this, it’s a humid 97° outside, and the city of Bloomington is about to mandate water conservation.
I spoke to my friend Ellen today, in Twin Falls, Idaho. Temps hovering around 100° there, day after day, but even drier, in a desert environment. She and her husband woke up today with fires burning in or near Boise, Holliston, and I can’t remember where else. Ringed by fire. Air as smoky as 1995, the unforgettable year when Yellowstone burned, and we were all living in yurts in the Tetons.
As I write this, I’m hearing about drama after drama between and among humans, in my neighborhood, and others. Intense, searing, polarized.
How to maintain resilience in the midst of shocks to the system, during this period of massive, chaotic change?
I suggest we take a lesson from the plant world, where, in a natural state, many plants of different species tend to crowd together, shelter each other, nourish each other, the waste of one species serving as food for another species nearby. Plants of different sizes, growing up as time goes on, in what is called “succession,” small bushy plants, to larger ones, to small trees, to larger trees that end up sheltering the whole with a leafy canopy.
On my walks through Bloomington and the Indiana University campus in the early morning over these past three months of excessively hot, dry conditions, I’ve noticed places where plants are allowed to “do their thing.” And I realize now that though I knew about succession, my knowledge was theoretical. To actually see the effects of succession in action has been a revelation.
About four years ago, I.U. stopped cutting all the grassy meadows on campus, deciding to let parts of some of them “go back to seed,” find their own footing as natural midwest prairie habitat, with seeds dormant in the soil or brought in by wind and birds.
Today I decided to take some pictures of one area where this back-to-nature program has been initiated.
But first, here’s puppy Shadow with one of the newly planted little trees that despite regular watering into its “treegator,” died, from the heat. Notice the dry condition of the grassy meadow.
Walking a bit further north on the dead meadow, notice the nearly verdant, diverse conditions in the background, lining a small stream that only barely holds water.
Well, you might say, but there are big trees, so shade. Maybe that’s responsible for the verdant quality of the reverted-to-natural-succession midwest grasslands. But look more closely; not much of this broad swath of succession is actually in the shade.
We kept walking. Came upon an IU fountain that hasn’t yet been turned off. I imagine it will be once the new water rules go into effect on Monday. (And the flower plantings? Will they be starved of water, too? If the rules are applied fairly, then yes.)
On our way home, we pass by the other side of that same diverse, back-to-nature succession greenery. Notice the little trees that are being shielded from the intense sun by surrounding plants. No treegators for these tiny trees, and yet they live.
Even closer. Check out the little maple trees. Barely visible. Alive! Very alive. And no extra water. Just nature, doing her thing, resilient, able to withstand shocks to her diversified system like this drought so much better than any of our monocultured lawns, “crops,” and attitudes.
The same view, with the dead meadow beyond, where I had walked to begin this photo essay.
Did you know that the word “culture” comes from “cultivate,” to till the soil? It appears that when we started to till the soil we ignited the terrible separation from nature’s wisdom that has now reached its end-game, the obliteration and/or transformation of our oh-so-cultured civilization.
Here are two essays that also speak to our current drought and various take-away lessons we need to drum into our thoroughly cultivated heads.