Nothing Like a Fire To Make You Popular..

So, last week I posted a piece over at Planet Green’s website on the changing nature of our landscape, thanks to the fact that the West is burning up. It’s now the second most “voted” on piece at Planet Green, just behind the life altering piece on Emeril’s tips for making “green gumbo”…

…OK, Emeril’s piece is not actually about “Green Gumbo”, but it might as well be. In the meantime, here’s what I wrote:

A short while ago, we did a piece on the labors of Rob Hutsel and his friends down at Eagle Peak Reserve. Eagle Peak is part of the San Diego River Project, and it’s just one aspect of an over-all effort to preserve San Diego’s vast wild spaces from development and, yes, fire. The subject, though, is too vast for a 6-minute segment to cover, and so I thought I’d take a moment here to meditate on fire and “Green.” Though our show G Word slyly side-steps the “G” word, we hear about green a lot over here at Planet…ah…Green. We pursue newer, greener ways of shopping, driving, building, eating, growing, recreating, sleeping, even, yes, pooping. So, there comes a time when it’s good to reflect on what the “G” in G-Word is referring to. While the origins of the Green Movement go back to Rousseau, Thoreau, and a global reaction to the Industrial Revolution of the early 1900’s, the fact is, the “green” in “Green Movement” refers to chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is, of course, that wonderful element which allows plants to derive energy from the sun. Without it, our planet would be a wildly different, and arguably, un-inhabitable place. It is, in fact, how we’ve come to speak on behalf of nature, with Green Politics, Green Spaces, and Green Products. So, while we traipse the globe to illuminate (and yes, release carbon as we go) the “green” revolution going on, I’d like to spend a moment on the changing nature of our real green spaces.

If you are someone who rarely gets out of your city or suburb, then you may be unaware of the rapidly changing state of the green spaces around you. Here in Southern California, as in much of the west, a transformation is taking place so quickly and so relentlessly, it’s making me ponder just what “Green” really is anymore. The fact is our “natural world” is in rapid transition. Here, in the arid regions of the west, that agent for change is often, but not exclusively, fire. In Scott Pelley’s excellent and eye-opening piece on “60 Minutes” back in October of 2007, titled “The Age of Mega-Fires” Pelley toured the scorched landscape of Idaho, where fires burned an astonishing 1.9 million acres in 2007. The reason for the fires is of course, the perfect storm of a very dry previous winter, lack of forest management, and a very hot summer. But what was most remarkable was the revelation Pelley, and we the viewer, had when he asked how long it would take for the massive evergreen forests to grow back from such devastation. The answer: “Maybe never.”

Excuse me? “Never”?

The fact is, we now live in an age when fire is happening with such frequency that nature is having to respond in a way few would have anticipated- it’s simply mutating to a “weed culture.” The forestry specialist in Pelley’s segment suggested that all that is likely to remain of this once mighty forest will be charred stumps and a lush field of grasses. You see, in order for the trees to renew themselves, the seeds within the cones would have to survive the fire, and these crown fires simply burn too hot, taking all in their path to cinders. Thus, in some cases, no new forests. Instead, grasslands.

So, what about these grasslands? Well, the issue is this: largely, these new grasslands are not composed of indigenous, local grasses. They are invaders. Cheatgrass, Foxgrass, Yellow Mustard, Milk Thistle. The list goes on and on. And while this new ecosystem may look “green” and even pretty (I myself like a mid-March stroll through newly blossomed Yellow Mustard down here in the LA hillsides), they pose serious issues for the local flora and fauna.

In his masterwork,“Planet of Weeds”, writer/naturalist David Quammen laid out the scene in vivid and painstaking detail. Global warming (among other things) and all its symptoms- fire, climate change, temperature shifts, etc- places great stresses on local ecosystems. And, due to the nature of these stresses, evolution as we know it is pushed out of the equation. And what that means for us is that, eventually, all the diverse plants and animals which we think of as “ours” could be gone forever, replaced by opportunistic outsiders who are able to take root more quickly, spread, and thereby push out the original inhabitants. What makes this potentially alarming is that, by and large, these opportunistic invaders lack the things that make the indigenous plants and animals able to exist so gracefully in this climate.

Again, here in LA, the subtly beautiful Chaparral landscape is also very deft at dealing with things like drought and fire, under normal circumstances. The plants can survive on minimal water, make the most of their resources, and many actually have ingenious methods for surviving fire, like seeds that open from heat. But when fire cycles shift from 50-100 years, to 10-3 years, local ecosystems don’t have time recover, and the extreme heat of these “mega-fires” actually burn the seeds which would otherwise take advantage of the fire. And, keep in mind, once the plants go, the wildlife that depended upon them go as well. In San Diego, the endangered Quino Checkerspot butterfly sips nectar from only one flower. When that flower is pushed out, the Quino Checkerspot is gone. Would the loss of a tiny butterfly have any importance in our lives? Perhaps not, but then again, who knows? Talk about your “Butterfly Effect.”

What all of this could boil down to is this: “Green” is not just a color, any more than it is about shopping. Green is a nuanced understanding of the world that begins with the very things growing underfoot. If we wander out to our favorite hike, dog-walk or vista and look closely, we have to wonder, “Yes, it’s green but is it green?” And what can be done about it? Well, in some cases, nothing. The minute humans started moving around the globe, invasive plants and animals came with them. But in other areas, extensive efforts are underway to keep the local ecosystems intact, by doing all the things people like Rob Hutsel and crew are doing up there at Eagle Peak and more. In all likelihood, there are local efforts in your neighborhood to help keep the beautiful and complex ecosystems you grew up with alive and healthy. And, online, a site called “Weeds Gone Wild” is dedicated to providing a database of information for folks across the country so they can join in the battle to keep our natural surroundings complex and healthy. Change is inevitable, sure, but sometimes the change begins with how we see things.

One Comment

  1. David,

    I love this.


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