Saturday, March 28, 2020

CO2 and You--What the Pandemic Teaches Us About Nature

The crisis with the COVID-19 coronavirus is teaching some hard lessons about the importance of national preparedness and collective action. With the economic shutdown and social distancing causing many to head to nature preserves for solace and exercise, the pandemic can also help us better understand our relationship to nature. As explained below, that relationship plays out in every breath we take.

The power of nature
For one, the virus's capacity to shut down an economy shows how powerful nature is, and the perils of placing all value on economic growth while taking nature for granted.

Internal vs. external threats
The pandemic also shows how much more seriously we take problems that affect us internally rather than externally. Coronavirus, which attacks us from the inside, has achieved in three months the sort of concerted action and acceptance of sacrifice for the greater good that an external threat like climate change has yet to spur in three decades. Environment by definition refers to what is all around us, and has historically achieved political priority only when the sight or smell of pollution caused in us a visceral response, or an invisible menace like radiation threatened us internally. A CO2 buildup in the atmosphere may threaten our collective future, but it is neither a direct threat to our senses nor our health.

The fallacy of individual innocence 
While posing a physical threat to our insides, this coronavirus is also changing our perceptions of ourselves. Because the virus can be asymptomatic, each of us could potentially, unwittingly put others at risk simply through proximity. It shows how our bodies and our actions can pose a threat despite a complete lack of intention.

Libertarianism, which opposes government interference and believes that people should "be free to live their lives and pursue their interests as they see fit as long as they do no harm to another," has long foundered on its second principal. We've known for many decades that it is impossible to "do no harm" to others when we each as individuals use machines whose exhaust is altering the atmosphere, radicalizing the weather and flooding coastal cities. Our lack of ill intent, our view of ourselves as good people, our noble motivations for using the machines--these have nothing to do with actual collective consequence. What each of us does has a small but collectively vast global impact. Again, coronavirus is teaching us in three months the lessons that many have resisted learning from climate change over three decades.

The biggest threats are not always the most lethal
Another lesson this particular coronavirus teaches is that the biggest threats are not always the most obviously lethal. There have been more deadly coronaviruses. SARS killed 10%, MERS more than 30% of those known to be infected, but their higher kill rates actually served to inhibit their spread. Though COVID-19 has a relatively low mortality rate, it has caused the most disruption. The most dangerous kind of coronavirus, it seems, is one that can spread rapidly by being very contagious but selectively lethal. Similarly, the biggest threat to the earth's climate is excess CO2, a molecule with less power than some but which has become dramatically more abundant and persistent in the atmosphere. Its lethal consequences--a superstorm here, a megafire there--are also selective, leaving many thus far unscathed.

The magic and power of CO2 in our bodies--how carbon serves as nature's battery
Coronavirus is additionally relevant to climate change through the mechanism by which it threatens people's lives. By inflaming the lungs and thickening their walls, the virus not only slows the transfer of oxygen from the air into the bloodstream, but also prevents CO2 from escaping from the body. Exhaling excess CO2 is just as important for our survival as inhaling oxygen.

It's worth taking a moment to explore the elegance and beauty behind the normal breathing we usually take for granted. Our breathing is part of a magic show that perfectly matches the plant world's own brand of magic. A plant takes invisible carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air, strips the carbon of its oxygens and packs the carbons with energy from the sun, much like we charge a spent battery. The plant builds these energized carbons into visible tissues full of sugars, carbohydrates and fats. We in turn eat the visible food, extract the energy from the carbons, then send the spent carbons flying out of our mouths as CO2, now invisible and airborne, to fly back to plants on the wings of oxygen. Blow into your hand and feel the carbons you ate as food just hours before. Breathing is how we lose weight. Our consumption and respiration is the equivalent of "now you see it, now you don't."

Coronavirus causes CO2 to build up to dangerous levels in our bodies
Though the CO2 constantly building up in our bloodstreams is essentially exhaust, a bi-product of our internal combustion, nature in its brilliance makes use of what seems like mere waste. Our bodies use the CO2 to strictly regulate our blood's acidity and flow. Though the CO2 floating in the air all around us poses no threat to our bodies, CO2 in our bloodstream is a powerful molecule that must be carefully regulated. Any significant rise or drop in concentration could be life-threatening. Many thousands of times a day, the constant streaming of CO2 from cells into our bloodstream triggers an impulse to breathe, not only to take in more oxygen but to keep ridding the body of excess CO2 that otherwise could do damage. Coronavirus sabotages this beautiful, elegant, essential system, blocks the CO2's escape from the bloodstream, and thereby prevents our bodies from regulating themselves. Thus the critical need for ventilators.

The magic and power of CO2 in nature
The critical importance of regulating CO2 levels extends to nature. As soon as the CO2 exits our mouths, it loses its power over our bodies but becomes active in the earth's atmosphere. Nature, again in its brilliance, utilizes our exhaust not only as a convenient, ever-ready food for plants to build their bodies with, but also to regulate the temperature of the earth and the acidity of the oceans. As with a tiny coronavirus, CO2's invisibility is part of its power. Floating like an invisible blanket in the atmosphere, CO2 lets the sun's light energy reach the earth unimpeded. But when that light hits the earth, or the roof of our homes, or our skin, the light energy is transformed into heat. Our skin "burns" because of this instantaneous change of solar energy from light to heat. The CO2, which affects the earth like the glass windshield affects the inside of a parked car in the summer, lets light through but prevents the resultant heat from escaping. That's the greenhouse effect, and that, too, is a beautiful part of the earth's functioning until something--our machines--puts too much CO2 in the atmosphere, causing too much heat to be trapped.

Because the livable planet is only skin-deep, human activity beginning with the industrial revolution has increased the atmosphere's concentration of CO2 by nearly 50%. The earth heats up and radical changes in climate and sea level are set in motion. Like with our bodies, a change in overall temperature of even one degree can have consequences.

Nature as a body we live within
That is how I came to view nature--the plants, animals, oceans, air and soil--as a body, as much in need of careful regulation as our own bodies. The plants are the earth's lungs--whisking away excess CO2 and supplying oxygen. Animals are the earth's cells--constantly burning energy and releasing CO2. The atmosphere and oceans are the earth's circulatory system, carrying oxygen to the animals and CO2 to the plants in a mutually beneficial exchange. We live in this body, the body of nature, as if it were a womb that feeds us and, in past eras, conveniently absorbed and cleansed all our waste. It's a body that is not much more than a skin on the earth. That is how the famous "blue marble" photo of earth, said to have transformed our awareness of our place in space, is both informative and deceptive. The living earth is not a massive solid ball, but more like the skin of a balloon, barely penetrating into the ground, and rising only a morning's vertical walk into the sky. Our world is vast only when viewed horizontally. Look up or down and the boundaries of the living world are close at hand.

Like coronavirus, a fossil fueled economy causes CO2 to build up to dangerous levels in nature's body
What a glorious system--this thin-skinned body of a living earth--a system whose built-in stability and predictable cycling of the seasons has allowed all of life, including us, to thrive. And how are we unintentionally but knowingly and profoundly messing up that system? It is not us so much as our machines, not our machines so much as the combustion by which they are powered, and not so much their combustion as the nature of their fuel. Fossil fuel--I wish there were a better name, what with its forced, phoo-phoo doggy alliteration and wimpy consonants that defeat an emphatic delivery. But there it is. We're stuck with the name and increasingly stuck with the consequences. Fossil fuel means buried fossil life converted by intense pressure over eons into fuels deep underground. All that carbon safely sequestered down there in deposits of coal, oil, and natural gas. Wise it would be to leave it there, keep it out of action so that the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere remains within a stable range. But no. The stuff's just too good to leave alone, too extraordinary in its concentration of power, too useful.

Imagining nature's trauma in our own bodies
This is where viewing ourselves as inhabiting the body of nature can help us understand what our machines and the economy they supercharge are doing to the earth. Imagine your body were the living skin of the earth, and you were doing just fine, combusting and exhausting carbon, keeping your CO2 levels within a safe range, when an invasive civilization of microscopic creatures began constructing a whole new network of roads, airports, and homes inside your skin. And that tiny but expanding network had minute machines for mobility and comfort that began to emit a steady pulse of more CO2 into your body, so much that it outstripped your lungs' capacity to expel the excess. Your body, unable to accommodate this additional burden of exhaust, would be in mortal danger.

The body of nature needs a ventilator
This is what our coal- and oil- and natural gas-combusting economy has been doing to that surprisingly thin, skin-deep body of nature we live within. The plant world and the oceans cannot accommodate the extra load of CO2 constantly being emitted by the economy we have installed on this planet.

Though nature here is being portrayed as a body, I have not seen any evidence that nature is an entity that can intentionally communicate with us in any way. There have, however, been two crises that seemed uncanny in their timing. One was Hurricane Sandy, which arrived in the last week of the 2012 presidential election, during which climate change had gone nearly unmentioned. The other is the arrival of the COVID-19 coronavirus, which imposes on the human body an imbalance not unlike what is being perpetrated upon nature. It could be seen as a "See how it feels!" moment, meant to inject the perpetrators with a dose of empathy for the nature we inhabit and abuse, just before the 50th Earthday.

But my guess is that nature doesn't work that way. If portrayed as a character in a play, Nature's personality would be one that quietly serves while stoically enduring relentless mistreatment. As the play continued, Nature would increasingly lash out with randomly deployed superstorms and megafires. Maybe the other characters--people--would come to their senses, would extend to Nature the empathy they feel for each other, begin to give back to Nature and work with it, and most importantly, stop overwhelming its body with exhaust.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

The Lost Meadows of Maidenhead Meadows

Last week we happened upon an often passed but little known nature preserve just outside Princeton. It began with a spousal call for woodchip mulch for the garden, which meant a trip to the Lawrence Township Ecological Center out on Princeton Pike. The website said they're open until 2:30pm on weekdays, but I called to make sure. Two days later, we finally headed out there in my 94 Ford Ranger, which I launch like some old ship for strategic errands around town. A lot was changing day to day as towns responded to the spread of coronavirus, and sure enough, we arrived to find that even an outdoor operation like the composting center was closed. With my heightened awareness of climate change, I hate to waste even a short drive out of town, and was not happy at the prospect of returning home empty handed. A compostable expletive escaped my lips as I pulled into the driveway across from the Ecological Center.

Before I could turn around, though, we realized that the driveway I had just pulled into was the entryway for a park. Maidenhead Meadows, the sign said. Township of Lawrence. With the world shut down by a virus, we had time on our hands, so why not?

The broad, flat cinder trail winds through what some might call a second growth forest. But "second growth" assumes that there was a "first growth" forest here long ago, which is not necessarily the case. The name of the preserve stirred memory of a map seen many years back on the wall of Brearley House, the historic house that stands just a little further down Princeton Pike. Being an enthusiast of prairies, I had taken particular note of an expansive meadow on that map.

There's a widespread and persistent misconception that the eastern U.S. was one big forest prior to colonization. More likely it was a mosaic of woodlands, oak savannas and prairies, tended to by Native Americans and their horticultural tool of choice: fire. Evidence can be found along our gasline and powerline right of ways, where periodic mowing keeps trees at bay. There one can still see swaths of the same grasses munched on by bison out in the prairie states: Indian grass, switchgrass, little bluestem, purpletop, and an occasional big bluestem.

Below is a portion of the wonderful old 1776 map, showing the "Maidenhead Great Meadows"

A brief history of Brearley House is the only description I've found thus far of this great meadow that pre-existed colonial times. The 1761 Brearley House "was erected on the Great Meadow, a farming and grazing land of the first residents of Lawrence - the Leni-Lanapi People."

A little box of text on the old map gives more details about how this meadow was used by colonists.

There was a similarly large early America meadow, just west of Durham, NC, where I used to live, with stories of colonists harvesting hay from its fields. Years ago, Roger Hansard, a friend in the Natural Resource Conservation Service, took some of us out there once to see the big bluestem grasses surviving along a roadside--one last remnant of what once was a broad sweep of grassland habitat called Meadow Flats. Prairie enthusiasts spend a lot of time scrutinizing roadsides, especially under powerlines, because that's the only place prairie species have survived through a century or more of fire-deprivation and tree growth.

Back in NJ, the current state of Maidenhead Meadows reflects neither its history nor its name. Rows of trees offer evidence of an old nursery (these look like white birches struggling to hold on), and are a reminder that most trees planted in a nursery grow to unwieldy size before anyone can get around to transplanting them.

Someone took care long ago to plant the trees in impressively straight lines.

Maidenhead Meadows is worth a visit. It's a strange mix of abandoned tree nursery, mega-invasion of autumn olive, and some more natural-seeming woodland. Partway down the trail, I had my first sighting in NJ of sourwood in the wild, a tree that turns brilliant red in fall and is more common in the southeast U.S.. Hard to say whether it was part of the nursery.

Knowing that the site had once been a grassland, I wondered if they might attempt to make it so again. It certainly has the feel of a landscape that lost its way long ago. The writeup on Brearley House offers a partial answer as to what went awry after 1800:
"Over the next 150 years, the lack of natural drainage resulting from the construction of the DR Canal and the building of many major and secondary roads caused the Great Meadow to become a wooded wetlands."
In other words, the landscape's predisposition to be grassland was undermined by a change of hydrology. There's a poetry to how water moves through a landscape whose underlying drainage patterns have survived unaltered. I've seen it at Herrontown Woods, and in a few other headwaters over the years. Water flow drives a landscape, whether it's a backyard or a nature preserve.

Maidenhead Meadows may have lost some of its underlying poetry, but I hope they try to bring its historical identity back to life, particularly in the areas overrun by autumn olive. Mercer Meadows, five miles away, is an example of how management can restore these grassland habitats, and even bring back the fire that helped create and sustain them in centuries and millenia past.

Lawrence township has preserved a lot of cultural and natural heritage down Maidenhead way, accessible in part by bike via the towpath--Brearley House, the massive Brearley Oak down next to Bristol-Myers Squibb, and a system of trails that increasingly link it all together. Hopefully someone's cooking up an effort to reconnect the habitat to its past glory.

Woodchips remain on hold, but the open space still invites us to walk and dream.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Solace and Beauty, Peace and Quiet at Herrontown Woods

As a big economy is brought to its knees by a tiny virus, many of us larger species have been getting outdoors to find solace and beauty in a nature that quietly perseveres, largely unfazed by an economy's wild swings. With the machine world's background din newly subdued, there's a greater depth to the peace and quiet to be had during a walk in the woods.

At Herrontown Woods, we've made a few changes in response to the public health crisis. The popular walking sticks are now in storage for the duration,

and the chairs at Veblen House are practicing social distancing.

It can be reassuring to find simple pleasures in small things. Remnants of Elizabeth Veblen's english garden are being protected and restored. These are a few of the many daffodils planted last spring. Others of her own plantings are coming back, simply through our holding off on mowing until the leaves have had a chance to recharge the roots for next year's blooms.

A few snowdrop blossoms remain from the broad sweeps of blooms earlier in the spring.

I glanced up from work at the botanical garden next to the parking lot, and saw this blossom that finally revealed the identity of a mystery tree that has been growing there, tilted almost horizontally--a willow.

This small patch of frizzy grass growing near Veblen House looks to me like poverty oats grass--a native species of Danthonia. Most turf grasses are non-native, but I've long speculated about what a native lawn might look like, populated by Danthonia, Dichantheliums, and the soft fescue one can still find in older lawns.

Diminutive American hollies stand out in the winter woods. They remind me of the hemlocks in the New Hampshire forests that would remain small for decades in the dense shade, ready to launch a burst of growth if and when the death of a nearby tree allowed some sunlight to reach the ground.

These little leaves could easily be mistaken for some diminutive wildflower or weed, but they are the leaves of Hearts 'a Bustin', a shrub that can reach 10 feet high but which has been laid low by deer browsing. It's an old story: the nonnative Euonymus alata shrub dominates in much of the preserve, while this native Euonymus americana barely survives, all because deer prefer to eat the native. We've taken a few of these remnant nubbins and planted them in cages in the botanical garden, so people can see what they are supposed to look like.

It's hard to capture in a photo the expanding flower buds of a highbush blueberry. They tend to be loners in the understory, hard to tell from other shrubs unless you develop an eye for their fibrous, brownish bark low on the stem.

The hazelnuts we planted are already busy, with their male catkins hanging down. Blueberries, hazelnuts, pawpaws, plums, butternuts, persimmons--these are part of the edible forest concept that is appealing even though it has, so to speak, yet to bear fruit.

This rock, along the yellow trail, seemed to be looking back at me. Was it chance that gave it acorn eyes?

In March, it's very easy to see what I call the "second forest." Having come from different climates, introduced species tend to leaf out earlier than the natives. This photo shows a broad swath of privet leafing out in the understory, beneath native trees still in their dormant brown.

The "second forest" is also visible in the fall, when the nonnative privet, multiflora rose, and honeysuckle remain green after the natives have dropped their leaves.

The combination of winter forest and brightening days makes for a wonderful time of year to explore patterns, like this corky bark, unusual for an ash tree. This may be an example of a tree's bark getting more distinctive with age.

With nature as the consummate artist, each boulder in Herrontown Woods tells a story that weds life and stone, organic and inorganic, present and past.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Shedding Our Martian Ways: Coronavirus and H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds

A deserted airport. A civilization shut down by a virus. It makes me think of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, in which Martians conquer England with heat-rays and "black smoke", and seem unstoppable until, suddenly and surprisingly, they succumb to lowly pathogens to which they have no resistance.

We have watched as civilization has been taken over by forces alien to reality, as cold and unsympathetic as Wells' Martians, with a rigid ideology that aims all skepticism outward, and severs the links between combustion and climate change, between spending and taxation, present and future, self and responsibility, words and truth.

For those of us who imagine a civilization that goes beyond fossil fuels, an incremental shifting to renewable energy sources would have been the least disruptive, but the political opportunists and denialists foiled that approach. Failing an expedited incrementalism, the transition would begin instead like our response to the coronavirus, with a reset in which all unnecessary combustion is suspended. Then, in that unaccustomed quiet and new sympathy for nature and the people to come, there would be a surge of economic activity as we rapidly build up renewable forms of energy, remake our lives in a vastly saner and more stable economy, one that would give us mobility and comfort in the present without stealing our future.

COVID - 19 has shown that such a reset is possible. We are a fabulously adaptable, resilient, resourceful species, and are rallying to collectively survive this shutdown for a virus as we would survive a shutdown to finally stop abusing the planet. That would be the finest way to celebrate the 50th Earthday coming up in April, as we begin to build our way back to abundance--the right way this time--give back to nature as it has so generously given to us, and reclaim a shared future. Let us shed our Martian ways, and become more human and humane, more of and for this earth.

Postscript: Some of H.G. Wells' books deal with the power of invisibility. In "The War of the Worlds," it is invisible pathogens that achieve what all the fire power of the English military cannot. And in "The Invisible Man," Wells shows how invisibility can wreak havoc. Climate change is playing out like a slow motion science fiction novel, in which a seemingly benign, invisible, odorless molecule radically changes the world and civilization's destiny. Wells also shows how invasion plays out in the plant world. Martians in the War of the Worlds, very much like our global trade, bring with them an invasive plant, the Red Weed, which quickly runs roughshod over the native species.