Cycles in Geographic Literacy

Look at nature enough and cycles begin to dominate. Folding back in, recycling, reforming and being spat back out in some transformed configuration is the closed course of all elemental function. All energetic-source vectors follow in the shape of the globe and head far off toward some vector of their own invention and momentum to only come back around again. Ecologists describe energy as a consumable force that is unidirectional – a giving momentum from one trophic level to the next until it is spent. The spending of energy is better thought of as a release of constituent components, mineral and abiotic units that are always recycled and used again.

In my work, I examine the relationship between art and science, which in my mind is the play between meaning and truth and apply that research to one object-field-system of study: California. The course of my study is mechanically, a puzzle of endless depth, width and breadth despite the topographic finiteness of the land area itself. The end of my work is societal atonement with California’s natural world; an equilibrium between human extraction and replenishment based on more-than-knowledge, but a deep understanding rooted in love to protect and restore. To give back the gift.

I have a lot of faith in the idea of Geographic literacy, but I have a hard time pinning down exactly what it is. It is certainly not only the rote ability to read a map. It is more than the ability of being able to read the land. It is more than knowing what is where. Geographic literacy is wrapped up in the qualitative function of how – how do systems relate and support life.

Let’s go with that: Geographic Literacy is the interdisciplinary study and appreciation of living patterns across a specific landscape. Geographic literacy is not only the study of ecology, the study of the relationship between biotic and abiotic forces, but the understanding of how macro-networks of a given province (be it a watershed, a fireshed, a carbonshed, a viewshed) are influenced by physiography, hydrology, climate, soil, pollution and other elemental, shaping forces that influence biodiversity at any moment on the ecosystem’s adaptive cycle, its successive life cycle.

All living networks share the same adaptive cycle regardless of scale. New growth always evolves into mature forms of conservation within the system-body. This inevitably leads to the release of stored energy at the opposite side of the diagram from the generation of it. The decimation releases resources that makes way for the reorganization of those structures that define the function of the system itself and extend through time to both the beginning and the end of terrestrial life.

note: this diagram of my own invention is a symbolic approximation of a very complex and subtle system-cycles, collectively known as the biogeochemical cycles. The most misleading aspect of this diagram is the idea that these recycling systems move in linear narrative or a consistent arch, when actually the cycles reconfigure themselves from multiple origin points to multiple chemical outcomes.

The characters at play in this drama do not change, although the scenarios they exist in, namely the rate of change in ecosystem quantities at scale does. Through the abiotic theaters of life on earth: the lithosphere (earth), the hydrosphere (water) and the atmosphere (air), biogeochemical cycles run their endless loops. The runners of these loops are the nutrients themselves: carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, oxygen and sulfur are the big ones.

The major abiotic ecological cycles
  1. The Carbon cycle describes the process by which carbon enters the atmosphere (in the form of Carbon Dioxide) through respiration and combustion and is then reabsorbed biologically through photosynthesis and passed along through the cycle by consumption of plants. It is important because photosynthesis (sugar derived in plants through sun-energy) is the source of all ecology and Carbon Dioxide is necessary in the formula for plants to produce sugar.
Carbon Geography: Carbon exists in the ecosystem in locations called Stores (oceans, forest, and such). The Store can either be a Sink (absorbing more carbon than it gives off), or a Source (giving off more carbon than it absorbs.)
  1. The Nitrogen cycle describes the process by which atmospheric Nitrogen becomes available to ecosystems to produce and decompose. The first step in this extracting atmospheric Nitrogen is bacterial. Bacteria transform nitrogen into Ammonia to make it available for plants in a step called Assimilation. Plants and animals use ammonia to make amino acids and DNA, i.e. growth. When the plant or animal dies, ammonification is how bacteria collect the nitrogen for reuse. Denitrification is the reduction of the nitrogen back to gas.
Nitrogen Geography: Ecosystems and biodiversity increase with nitrogen fertilization, but a tipping point occurs when Nitrogen saturation is attained and begins to damage all biological processes. The process of Nitrogen Pollution is a positive feedback cycle that cause decreased biodiversity and extensive eutrophication in fresh and saltwater systems.
  1. The Nutrient cycle describes the process by which all life-in-matter within the ecosystem is produced. The Nutrient cycle encompasses aspects of all the mineral cycles: Carbon, Nitrogen, Sulfur, Phosphorus, Oxygen and water and requires an equilibrium of these other cycles to efficiently produce healthy ecosystems. Biomass becomes litter which decomposes and with rock, becomes soil. Soil produces plant and life to again become biomass.
Nutrient Geography: 100% of all energy and nutrients is any ecosystem is used again and again indefinitely. This closed loop recycling is always dependent on 1) the protection of biodiversity 2) Access to renewable energy and 3) the recycling of plants.
  1. The Oxygen cycle describes the process, by which photosynthesis as its main agent transports oxygen between the atmosphere and the biosphere. Photosynthesis is responsible for most of the atmosphere’s free oxygen, or that oxygen not locked up in water and other chemicals. Oxygen is also cycled through the Biosphere and the lithosphere through the weathering of calcium carbonate shells of marine organisms.
Oxygen Geography: Atmospheric oxygen has led to the formation of the ozone layer which protect all terrestrial life from ultraviolet radiation and affords the biosphere its current habitable condition.
  1. The Phosphorus cycle is the process by which Phosphorus, a key-component to building biomolecules is processed through rocks and minerals and utilized by biologic agents. As in the Nitrogen cycle, mycorrhizal fungi broker phosphorus between soil and plants in exchange for sugar.
Phosphorus Geography: an over-abundance of Phosphorus in a marine or freshwater ecosystem will cause a choking bloom of algae, which leads to quicker rates of eutrophication. Phosphorus rarely occurs in a gas form but exists in the earth and thereby makes this cycle, by existing on the geologic timeline, the longest, potential timeframe for a revolution of any of the major mineral cycles.
  1. The Sulphur cycle, in terms of its ecological relevance, is the process by which this essential element, used in the production of proteins is recycled through plant uptake, or used by plants in its atmospheric form, Sulphur Dioxide and then returned to the earth through plant residue and other biosolids.
Sulfur Geography: the amount of Sulphur in the atmosphere always increases because of volcanic activity and the human burning of coal. Sulphur is intrinsic in the production of Fossil Fuels. When Sulfur is released through the burning of fossil fuels it enters the water cycle and transforms rain water to a pH level of 4.3 or lower, acid rain.
  1. The Rock cycles describes how magma from the crust crystallizes to become igneous rocks on the surface. Erosion than transforms those rocks by means of sedimentation into sedimentary rocks. The processes of plate tectonics, by means of tectonic burials, transform those rocks into metamorphic rocks by means of melting back to magma.
Rock Geography: called geology, is the study of the components of all land-type constituents and their chemical make-up across topographies.
  1. Also called the Hydrologic cycle, is the process by which liquid water condenses into the atmosphere by the processes of evaporation and evapotranspiration (the breathing of plants) to come back to the earth in the form of precipitation.
Water Geography: physiographic processes that are included in the water cycle are volcanic steam, sublimation (ice becoming steam without becoming liquid), desublimation (atmospheric water becoming ice without becoming liquid), surface runoff, fog drip, ice and snow, snowmelt runoff, soil infiltration, groundwater flow, groundwater storage, streamflow, freshwater, plant uptake, dew, springs, seepage, flora and fauna, vents and volcanoes and oceans.

Ascribing power of self-generation and renewal, or purpose, to a natural system is to see that system as alive – a being unto itself. Or at least, this reach to understanding set some parameters to better understand our role in the functioning of that system. If all natural systems are living systems, the moral perspective shifts and we become responsible to recognize our integral relationship to it. Systems of nature are now legally considered property: resources and commodities. The economics that we’ve built around this system of law – capitalism – depends on the myth of resource scarcity, it is the driving force of supply, demand, investment and return. I am not decrying the evils of our legal system or even capitalism itself, I don’t have a prescription about how it will play out. I am suggesting that when we shift the perspective, when the paradigm begins to slip, when we see the world as a living thing that exists in cycles of rebirth and redefinition, we see our own society susceptible to the same kind of evolution. And then, we can begin to talk about how the land sustains and renews itself – we move from the realm of scarcity into the realm of plenty.