Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#84, April 25, 2000


by Marylaine Block

This time of year Mother Nature is an amazingly messy broad, strewing the ground with pods and petals, dandelion puffs, and squishy mulberries. But given time, she WILL clean up after herself. Seeds and cones take root, and berries and flowers attract birds to eat them and insects to use their pollen. A lot of her mess is just life passing itself on.

Some of the mess is death, to be sure -- fallen leaves and branches, dead birds and insects. But they give life, too, becoming food for still other critters. Over a couple of days I watch as a dead squirrel is systematically stripped of usable parts; first the birds come, then the flies, and soon all that's left is a scrap of fur.

It all works because of the elegant choreography between the different life forms, each one with its own predators and prey. Most of the time, it balances, in ways we haven't fully begun to grasp; no one life form gets out of hand because it has other species to keep it in check. When we wipe out any one inconvenient plant or animal, unpredictable things happen because we just don't know enough about how the system works.

There's a true story about an island where villagers declared war on caterpillars that ate the thatch off their roofs. The villagers sprayed poison on the thatch, killing the caterpillars. But as the caterpillars were eaten by other animals, the poison passed up the food chain until the birds of prey disappeared, leaving rats and mice free to overrun the island. According to the story, the islanders had to airlift in a bunch of cats to put them down. (I have a mental image of cats in little parachutes.)

That story is a reminder of a fundamental rule: you can't change just one thing.

Animals that stick to their niches stay in balance -- giraffes only eat the leaves high up where others can't reach, koala bears eat only eucalyptus leaves nobody else much wants, each kind of dung beetle sticks its favorite brand of animal leavings. It all works out. In the process, they fertilize the ground, spread seeds, and help insure each other's survival, not as individuals but as species.

None of this niche business for humans, though, because we think the whole shebang is ours. Some religions even tell us our planet was designed solely for our viewing pleasure.

We CAN live, and have lived, as part of the ecosystem. When we catch a couple of fish for dinner, pick apples as we need them, cut down dying trees, we make no greater dent on the earth than seals and birds; we nibble at the edges, leaving the species we use intact. We may even add to the environment by deliberately cultivating orchards and grains.

But when we spread drift nets that catch every fish in a half-mile radius, the fish cannot replenish themselves. When we clear-cut entire forests, we take away the homes of countless species, silt our streams, and rob the air of the oxygen its leaves once spawned. When we pave over flood plains, the water cannot be absorbed and stored for future use.

When we pollute our water, or use it wastefully, we draw down aquifers millions of years in the making. They cannot be replenished by normal rainfall, even if we GET normal rainfall. Which we won't, because the gunk we've dumped into the atmosphere has skewed the weather, too.

Not until the first Earth Day, in 1970, did most of us start understanding that Mother Nature can't clean up our messes because they're on too grand a scale; we have to clean them up ourselves. Since we passed the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, our rivers don't catch on fire anymore, declining fish species have come back, and fewer people suffer from deadly smog that once was commonplace. But we have yet to deal with global warming and the shrinking ozone layer.

Earth Day is a good, though infrequent, reminder that we do not own the earth -- we are merely renters. We have to return it to its owners -- our children, and theirs, in an unending chain -- undamaged. We won't get our deposits back unless we clean up our act.

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