“The delicate balance of nature.” That term “delicate” appeared again and again in my biology textbooks. As a field kid, I saw the changes each year as the forest filled in around our house-in-the-woods, built after timber had been removed. As the new vegetation matured, each year the insect populations changed to match it. “Delicate” seemed to make sense. Any little change in the complex food webs shifted all the other critters.
Then as a college freshman in 1964, I assisted my biology professor in a survey of unreclaimed coal stripmines. Mined before the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, these acid spoilbanks were a barren moonscape of 80-foot-high ridges-and-valleys. Soil was as acid as battery acid. No plants could grow on the slopes because more acid pyrite was exposed with each rainfall.
In 1981, I returned to repeat his study for my doctoral research—the only real-time study of change-over-time conducted on coal mine spoils. I now stood in the midst of grassland and forest! Only one site remained a barren ridge, still as acidic as seventeen years earlier.
Grasses had populated the valleys and slopes. Then tall weeds shaded out grasses. Finally shrubs and trees shaded out the weeds. A new but thin soil had built up. Ants and other animals had moved back in. Today, satellite photos show no open spoilbanks left; it is all solid forest. When those stripmines were abandoned, no one would ever have dreamed that they would grow back to forest in 40 years.
I stopped teaching about the “delicate” balance of nature.
The Gulf oil spill is today’s tragedy. The petroleum washing ashore looks as devastating and permanent as my old acid spoilbanks. Delicate or durable is no longer a hypothetical question. One radio personality dismisses the spill, proclaiming that the oil will naturally break down. He says life will go back to normal in the very near future. On the other side, some environmentalists assert the Gulf shores will never recover—ever. Some point to the Exxon Valdez spill and say it is now all cleaned up, like it never happened. But look under some rocks and you can sometimes detect oil residue. Others say those Alaskan shores will never recover. That is news to the wildlife that has repopulated the area.
Both extremes are wrong, and we should know better. This spill is a big one, with big consequences. It will have a serious impact on the folks who depend on the fishing, tourism and related industries. Like my coal spoilbanks, it will change the environment for decades. For a generation that cannot fish or work in related businesses, it is an economic tragedy.
But the environment will eventually come back. We should know that because the Great Plains was the origin of “come back science.” Pioneer researcher Frederick Clements first detailed the sequence of changes in a disturbed environment as it “makes it way back to nature.” His doctorate awarded by the University of Nebraska at Lincoln in 1897 was the first to describe “succession,” the process where a sequence of plants slowly restores the potential natural community. Then Victor Shelford, a biologist from Illinois, described the succession of animals that repopulate a disturbed site.
This is no strange process to Kansans who tend a garden. In gardening, we are the disturbance.
We plow up the soil, tearing out the natural vegetation. Then we fight against nature, trying to preserve our special tomatoes and beans and corn. But as soon as we stop our hoeing and cultivating, nature begins the process of restoring wild grasses, tall weeds, cedar trees—the natural succession. Of course, pouring crude oil on the environment is a more lasting assault. For those of us who value nature, we get angry and want the President to be our tantrum-thrower-in-chief.
But the near-hysteria that has surrounded this oil spill represents a failure in biology education, a failure to provide a rationale appraisal of the harm. Our educational system, more-and-more isolated from gardening and the outdoors, has not given us the wisdom to calibrate between delicate and durable. The near term effects of the Gulf spill will be economically costly and will impact natural populations. But for those whose hand has held a hoe, you know that in the very long term, nature is durable.