It was probably Homo erectus, our ancestor species, who first learned the secret of the campfire 1.5 million years ago. Whether they learned how to create the spark themselves, or control a small, natural blaze is debatable. Evidence of fire scars on rocks in East Africa date back that far, symbolizing what may be the very first anthropogenic carbon emission. Homo sapiens didn’t arrive on the scene for another million years.
In the interim, I bet gathering around the campfire is what ultimately led us to where we are as a species today. That meditation on the campfire, the circling of a human community to prepare food and strengthen social bonds, led us to and through the so-called Cognitive Revolution, when art and fiction first appeared in our evolutionary history about 100,000 years ago.
Fire is as important to human life, society and history as water. Its ability to transform food through cooking, light up our night communities at night and be manipulated into more complicated versions of itself to meet our needs has made modern society possible.
In the western U.S., specifically among the Indigenous people of California, fire has a history of being used for prescriptive burns to stoke the annual production of food. Those ways are largely lost behind a contemporary hubris of control: fire as an undeniable force, does not abide.
In this age of climate crisis, itself spawned from our relationship with fire, wildland fire threateningly creeps toward our human sprawl from all vectors, now in all seasons. In the west, we have unwisely built our patterns of suburban growth into long trains of fuel for fire to consume. It is the double-edged sword that our knowledge of fire, as energy unleashed, has been alternatively mastered and foolishly managed, depending on your ecological perspective of history.
Now, as we watch our homes burn because of our mismanagement of local wildscapes and firesheds, we wonder if it is too late to reset the clock — or how many coming-decades of inferno do we have to endure until it resets itself?
Fire can be a great ally and teacher, and it plays an important role in creating healthy, natural landscapes. It is by walking with fire through history that we became human at all. When we look into the ephemeral flames of a campfire, we see ourselves, dancing and reaching for the sky with what little fuel we are given.
OBI KAUFMANN, naturalist , poet and painter, is the author of the bestselling California Field Atlas (HEYDAY, 2017). His latest book, The State of Water, Understanding California’s Most Precious Resource (HEYDAY, 2019), continues his investigation into the confluence of art and science towards a more complete understanding of the natural world.
The big secret about this book is that it is not about what you might think it is about. The State of Water – Understanding California’s Most Precious Resource (HEYDAY, 2019) was always meant to be an interim chapter in a much larger story that will ultimately encompass a six-book series. This overarching design will capture not only the primary subject of my study: the systemic, perennial character of California’s natural world, but will also offer a context for observing and interpreting the forces that define it. I hadn’t originally planned on there being six books. All I have ever known, all I have ever had, is this love – this deep sense of belonging and of identity that has developed from a lifetime of embedding my creative world, my voice an artist, within this universe that is California’s natural world. With the success of The California Field Atlas (HEYDAY, 2017), I was afforded the opportunity to continue my study, barely understanding the prolific depth of my subject. If I could, I would paint a hundred maps a day of nature in California, for the rest of my life and never tell all the story I know there is to tell.
Finding the personal impetus, the drive and the inspiration to continue this journey was not difficult. When I then coupled it with and augmented it with the cry from what I know from my forever-travels across my growing community, the book became inevitable. That cry I listen to and feel so acutely, is the desirous change of some fundamental precepts within the story of how we talk to each other and build ideas around what nature is and our relationship to it. The cry is the revelation that California does not belong to us, but isn’t it the case finally, that we belong to it? And if that’s is how we feel, let’s restructure our relationship with this grand array of ecographies across this most-beautiful-of-all-places to mirror that impulse, and to lead us out from the inevitable collapse of this fossil-fuel fed fantasy. The State of Water is not about policy-making in that it is not about money. California’s water goes where the money flows. To address core issues of accessibility and reliability, the larger problem exists that both seniority rights and allocations need to be addressed, and my book does neither of those things. The aspect of my book that does approach policy is in my fair bit of writing about conservation – the state’s official policy on water use. We have made great strides in conservation strategies over the past few decades, although we still have a lot of work to do in this arena across the urban sector and certainly in agriculture. Having lived through the historic droughts of the 70’s and 80’s, my own relationship to water spending is like my grandfather’s relationship to money having grown up in the depression: precious stuff not to be idly wasted. Conservation wrapped up in technology, water management, recycling and new strategies of underground storage, replenishment and restoration are necessary implementations but they’re all symptom-treating. The core issue is our relationship to water in the story we’ve built around its capture and its utility.
As an environmentalist, or perhaps more relevantly, a post-environmentalist, I get regularly asked how I avoid engaging in the so-called water wars across California. I have two different strategies there: the first is that I believe we have been sold a set of false equivalencies based in a corporate-serving agenda between rural or agricultural politics, and between urban or municipal needs for growth. The divisive agenda does nothing but pit Californian versus Californian. When you are talking water in California, you were talking about worldview – my worldview is a unifying vision with a human core based on a California character that is not afraid of hard work, and we’ve got plenty of hard work to do… together. The second strategy I have to avoid the water wars is to focus my area of study and to keep it concise. I present my work at every stop along my book tour too many people. I have found that because my subject in this book is potentially a niche subject, most who attend my events are probably, or even certainly, more knowledgeable, and exhibit more expertise in their local water than what I’ve got. I trust and I respect their expertise and so I keep my conclusions simple and broad-based, operating in a philosophy that 1) looks to a future of societal equilibrium with the natural world, working backwards from that and 2) believes that it is not scarcity of water that is the problem, but scarcity of a trust in common story about water and it transcendence (at the core of all living systems) from a mere resource/commodity to something of intrinsic value.
The subtitle of the book is Understanding California’s Most Precious Resource. The understanding that I’m striving for is an applicable analysis of the interface between human water infrastructure and California’s natural water-scape as an ancient living network at the bottom of so many integral ecosystems – if not all of them. What the Precious Resource that I am looking to understand in this book may, or may not be, water itself. Perhaps it isn’t water that is California’s most precious resource but the quality of the human mind, with its capacity to understand itself in a historical context, to shape the reality of the natural world and to tell itself a story to justify that reshaping. And if that’s the case, do we have the capacity to change the change the story to avoid the coming calamitous state of affairs so often predicted by the world media and experts alike? What would that story look like?
While my book on understanding California Water is not about policy, it is about ethics. The ethics that I am interested in emerge as themes throughout the book and I believe there are two of them. The first is political ethics – in this I draw the line between what I right is and what a responsibility is. For every right that we enjoy, as invented under this liberal, humanist regime, the flowering of which corresponded with the invention of the steam engine in the late 18th century, there is and must be a corresponding responsibility. Freedom is not being able to do whatever you want – freedom is showing up for your personal responsibility.
The second, ethical theme in the book is a more subtle and ultimately aesthetic theme, and it has to do with associating natural systems with living systems and attributing to those living systems the right to exist. Ultimately, this is the worldview that my books striving towards -the crux of the larger story that I’m trying. For the most part, contemporary legal systems work as if there’s two entities in the universe: humans that have rights and everything else that does not. There is outlying precedence for particular species to not the exposed to torture, for example, but what I’m talking about is Water, Fire and other natural forces to have a voice in our human world and in our collective narrative. Who speaks for the Watershed’s right to be kept clean, to support its ancient ecosystem and to exist in a normalized fire regime? If we able to change our core story and manifest this kind of ecological democracy, would not our own species realize profitable and sustainable dividends under such a narrative?
The California dream has forever run tandem with, and been subject to the search for abundant and reliable water. The degree to which we have changed the water-scape of California over the past 170 years of our statehood is a transformation so grand, vast and complete, that it will only be matched by the transformation it again goes under over the next one 170 years. As our story changes, our traditions will change, our economy will change, and our relationship with water will change with it and be better for it.
To order THE STATE OF WATER, Understanding California’s Most Precious Resource, visit
The Nature of Understanding California Water – a Further Perspective
by Obi Kaufmann
I am writing this essay in May 2019 – the twelfth rainiest May in Northern California since record keeping began in 1849, and the Sierra Snowpack is at about 200% normal. Most of the State Water Project’s reservoirs are full and I am about to embark on tour to support my new book: The State of Water, Understanding California’s most Precious Resource. The book is going to be in bookstores across California on June 1st, and I can’t help but wonder what audience reaction might have been like if, as in more years than not, this May had little or no statewide precipitation at all.
The first word of the subtitle of my book is Understanding, and what is actually being understood is key to appreciating my perspective. This is not a comprehensive survey. This is not a textbook. The focus of my book is not necessarily, human usage at all. Although calculating surface storage in the first half of the 21st century and extrapolating future usage across sectors is a large bit of the information presented, I am more interested in the human relationship to water in California – and that is the Understanding I am talking about and wish to investigate further. The State of Water is not wholly, an ecological investigation, nor is it void of political inclination. Although I wrote this book was to be as resilient as it could be to political ebb and flow, the people of California take water very personally, as they should.
The following bullet points reflect, what I see are relevant notes in any discussion of contemporary, Californian, water-usage but have been largely excluded from the book. For mainly, editorial reasons I felt that they all either fall outside of this book’s concise purview, will be addressed in a future book, or deal mainly with human power structures and belong in a textbook about such things. I’ve come up with this list for two reasons: 1, to respect my evolving relationship with this book itself and its subject, and 2, to anticipate audience interaction and maybe preemptively address some concerns. Talking about water can be stressful – I hear the question often: should we be worried about water? Instead of tackling the question like a journalist or a politician, I would like to answer the question as a fellow member of your community. To do so, I would need to ask who is the we in the question? And on a deeper, philosophical level, I would need to ask what is the value of worry? Perhaps the prescription to alleviate worry is understanding. See how that word keeps popping up?
FIRE & CLIMATE BREAKDOWN
Other than its persistent aridity, the other two, potentially major catastrophes facing our modern society in California are our more-common, mega-wildland fires and climate breakdown. Although I use climate change in the book, I am moving to calling this phenomenon, climate breakdown. I believe it is a stronger way of describing the effects of average, atmospheric temperature rise than is climate change. Climate breakdown carries more political meaning with its sense of palpable, virulent unpredictability.
California has had two seasons this year: rain & fire. To understand fire, it is important to understand water. In the State of Water, I address climate breakdown in regard to models predicting water storage capacity, but I don’t mention it in regard to fire. Does more rain mean more fire danger? While it is true that rain means more potential fuel, the moisture content of the forests, across all ecographies in both the flora and the soil, is higher and thus it turns out that there is statistically less chance of mega-fires in years such as this one. I will dedicate a book’s worth of research to this subject: The State of Fire, Understanding Where, How and Why California Burns will be published by HEYDAY BOOKS (fall 2021).
MONEY IN THE CENTRAL VALLEY
The State of Water does not dwell too long on money. Not because it is not important to understanding California Water, but because it is not interesting to me. If you are a dedicated student of California water policy as either an academic or a political interest, you must be versed in not only how the water flows, but how the money does as well. People and ecosystems are living and dying because of the economic notions of who pays for what. Water quality, water conveyance, water allocation, land subsidence, groundwater management and the future of the Central Valley’s industrial future all come together in a complex, scenario outside of the scope of The State of Water. Of course, aspects of these themes are addressed in the book, but only in how they affect the more-than-human world, my primary field of interest.
Problems of greed and generosity within human society, and how they relate to how money is spent is core to understanding how water moves and how it is available and how it is treated. With the scope of this book, I am woefully unable to tackle that story. For one example of the depth of this problem: according to the California State Water Control Board, more than 300 public water systems, most of which are in the Central Valley (and across the Mojave Desert) are serving unsafe drinking water. One million Californians every year are exposed to unsafe water. Governor Newsom wants to add a tax of $1 a month to urban water use to raise $100 million and update these systems. This is a very important issue, and I could point to fifty others, none of which I engage.
AQUIFER & UNDERGROUND STORAGE
Although I am very critical of how our surface-water storage infrastructure is so massively, ecologically destructive and how it is quickly moving towards obsolescence, I am not anti-dam on principal. Because aquifers occur in many different, geologic substrates across the state and because different communities have different attitudes towards their underground-water resources, California will be unable to get out of the business of surface-water storage for the next century or so.
Because of a lack of funding and because of a thick, clay layer, municipalities in the southern, Central Valley have largely done a poor job managing their aquifers. By only withdrawing water and with little attention to recharge, these communities are unwisely using this water as a one-time spend. For decades, the community around San Jose has been building and monitoring the recharge of massive, percolation pools as a renewable source of underground-water storage and because of it, have now completely recovered from the massive drought that dominated the second decade of this century.
The State of Water is built around nine-examples of how California’s natural water courses are utilized, through human infrastructure to store and move water. The analysis of its impact on both the environmental and the human ecology of California is largely based on the physicality of diversions and not on the subtle, all-encompassing, chemical nature of pollution. How human industry (fracking for example), municipalities (non-point-source runoff), or society (plastics and atmospheric pollutants), is a larger system of influence than this book was ever designed to address.
Another huge set of topics that gets precious, little attention in The State of Water is alternative technologies. Each, individual technology deserves broad consideration in just how far their beneficial yield might carry us into the future. To list but a few: wastewater reclamation and recycling; solar shields on reservoirs; energy-efficient desalinization; porous concrete building materials and storm-water catchment devices.
WATER PROJECT UPDATES
In the year since I penned the first draft of The State of Water, we’ve elected a new governor and there have been some modifications to our water policy, with specific reference to surface-storage. Los Vaqueros dam in Contra Coast County is being raised to increase storage in its reservoir and Pacheco Pass Reservoir is going ahead with construction. There is a new push to build more off-stream reservoirs and because of it, Sites Reservoir (page 66 in The State of Water) may be going forward. An off-stream reservoir implies that it does impact water course inflow – it certainly will. Also, with the new governor, The California Water Fix and Eco-restore (page 84 in The State of Water) was been reduced by over half its designed, conveyance capacity.
In other local news, The Carmel River reroute around the San Clemente dam has been a huge success. The reservoir, silted-up and at the end of its useful life, has been bypassed and because of it, the steelhead are returning. This precedent marks a milestone for what I have called in other essays, the coming paradigm of restoration that we will see played out again and again as California wakes up to the power of conservation and value of our natural legacy.
As we consider 22nd century needs and look back on the ethical implications of what we built in the 20th century, 21st century California is faced with some big decisions. It is answering that call that compelled me to write this book. The State of Water attempts, if nothing else, to demonstrate the economic and ecological magic that conservation theory represents. For example, instead of building a dam, how about we use that money and encourage people to take replace their lawns (half of urban water use is outdoor landscaping) and to install low-flow toilets and washing machines. The magic of conservation makes good fiscal sense: Delta water is $400/acre-foot, conservation water is $100/acre-foot.
I wrote The State of Water, as what will be the second in a six book series exploring my journey to a fuller understanding of the natural forces that coalesce to define the natural world of California. The first book was the California Field Atlas. The third, fourth and fifth books will be the California Lands Trilogy: The Forests of California (spring 2020), The Coasts of California (fall 2020) and The Deserts of California (spring 2021). The final book will bookend The State of Water and be called The State of Fire; Where, How and Why California Burns (fall 2021). Although my recent writing reacts mainly to observations I’m making on anthropogenic climate breakdown and extractivist culture, I’m most-moved by resilient systems within adaptive cycles across ecographic regions and how they, like the organisms they provide habitat for, seem to operate as single, coherent entities, and perhaps should be respected as such.
I am not terribly interested in debating water policy; I want to talk about water-story. How do we save everything we want to save? I want to sensibly discuss nimble and efficient strategies across a whole portfolio of approaches. Although it is a season of rain we know that with anthropogenic, climate breakdown we will (perhaps counter-intuitively) see years of both increased aridity and we will see the increased frequency of seasons filled with deluge. I would like to suggest, as a final thought, that California’s Most Precious Resource that I would like to get a better understanding of, isn’t necessarily water but the quality of the character inside everyone of us to come together and decide what is best for our extended stewardship of this, most-beautiful of places.
The unedited text, as submitted regarding WILD GIFTS, by Obi Kaufmann
Ditch the car. “The panoply of nature doesn’t reveal itself at 65 miles per hour. Walking is important, stopping even more so. I backpack at an ambling rate. I’ve been on so many treks with hikers who feel like it is some kind of race. It really isn’t. Stop by the creek and study the birds. Break out the journal and the binoculars often. Record your impression. Allow yourself to be astonished. Enjoy a couple of light lunches and see how many flowers you can count. Try drawing a fern leaf and let the process be more important than the product. With fifteen minutes in a wildflower meadow, I have never not been amazed at what I found. The more you look, the more there is. Nature is magic like that.”
Watch for patterns. “Nature is arranged into apprehendable patterns. Our minds were built by evolution to appreciate and know these patterns. My books aren’t arranged like field guides, I don’t explain what you are looking at. I explain how these larger, living forces work together and coalesce to form nature’s bigger drama. If you want to learn natural history, for example, start with a family of plants or birds, don’t start with an individual species. Widen the lens, investigate larger trends in the ecology around you. The bigger picture will always reveal more that the little picture and is a better path to understanding than memorizing specific details.”
Read a book. “Spend at least as much time reading as doing any other activity. More than walking, more than painting, I read. Books are trails that uncover the nature of thought itself. The unraveling of the contemporary mind away from the ability to concentrate in extended periods of focus. Alive today are some of the best nature writers in history and I hang on their every word like its food. Some of my favorite, working authors on your local bookstore right now are, in no particular order, David Rains Wallace, Gretel Ehrlich, Terry Tempest Williams, Rebecca Solnit, Gary Snyder, Naomi Kline, Barry Lopez, Diane Ackerman, Wendell Berry, Robert Macfarlane, David George Haskell, and Edward O. Wilson.”
Join a Land Trust. “The Land Trust movement is growing at an amazing rate. This apolitical network of good people working to preserve the natural character of millions of acres of land across the west, is direly important to support. Is there a local patch of habitat you are concerned about? chances are that one of several hundred, local land trusts is working to keep it safe. You can support land trusts, not only with dollars, but by volunteering. Getting out and doing some trail work, cleaning up a trashed site, or some other communal work is about as satisfying a day in nature as can be had.”
Don’t Panic. “More and more, when I present my work to the public, I find people who, with wild and yet exhausted eyes, ask me desperately what they can do to help the unraveling world they perceive as falling apart around them. I know this feeling well and I am very sympathetic to it. My first response is to ask the person who asked when the last time they went camping was? The number one thing you can do to help defend the intact, wild spirit of nature is to take care of yourself. So many people spend hours a day in their car and then spend the rest of the day staring at a computer. This is not how to engage in the movement. The movement needs you rested, grounded and connected. Go outside. Go outside for a good long while. Take off your shoes. Feel the grass in your toes. Drink water. Breathe deep. Eat well. Do this every day. Do this several times a day. The days of our existential alienation from nature will end soon enough. The post-carbon economy is on its way. Imagine that day is today. Take a moment to observe the bird, or the flower, or the passing cloud and marvel that you are the eye of the living universe perceiving the thing of the living universe. You, yourself are the natural world.”
Obi Kaufmann’s next book “The State of Water, Understand California’s Most Precious Natural Resource” is available now for preorder through heydaybooks.com and will be everywhere on June 1st. Obi will be going on an extensive book tour that begins in Truckee on June 2nd at Word after Word books, with a San Francisco launch at FILSON on June 6th. For details, go to www.californiafieldatlas.com. For information of the FORESTCITY collaboration, go to www.indigoferajeans.com and to order the COYOTETHUNDER FIELD BAG, go to www.kamenroad.com. Follow Obi on instagram @coyotethunder
This essay was originally published in Zyzzyva magazine, issue 113, Fall 2018. The theme of the issue was Restoration and I was invited to also contribute a portfolio of paintings to decorate it throughout – the paintings are interspersed in this reprint of the original version of the text. – Obi
The Evolving Language of Conservation
The Post-Environmental Movement
By Obi Kaufmann
Words and painting are all I have. They are all any of us have. Since the cognitive revolution, seventy thousand years ago at the dawn of art, at the dawn of fiction, humanity finally exchanged its true instinct, its connection with the natural world for the transcendent ability to deposit that instinct outside the body into words and painting, into narration. The Sixth Extinction, as defined as the world-wide collapse of biodiversity, the likes of which has only happened five times before in the three and a half billion-year history of life on earth, started about then too. The unprecedented, weaponized ability to construct the verbal and pictorial concepts is at the causal core of both our alienation from and our license to decimate those bits of nature that don’t offer immediate utility. It may be this same ability that steers us away from inducing some manner of ecological collapse we can’t escape from. It may be that with the right configuration of this, the most powerful of human tools – the ability to convey and to receive meaning – we might be able to reverse the unraveling that had begun so very long ago. This uniquely human ability is not only our best tool, it is our only tool.
We don’t generally believe that it happened in one day, sometime in our distant ancestry that words spontaneously fell out of some early-person’s mouth. Most traits, including neural processes, only emerge over great expanses of evolutionary time. That be said, we don’t know for sure. What if it was the lightning bolt? What if it was some psychotropic, fungal reaction that prompted the first poem to be uttered, the first song to be song, the first story to be told? Maybe the origin of communication, regardless if it happened quickly or not, wasn’t from without but from within? Is it really a reach to imagine such a historical event? In these days, just an eyelash of geologic time from not only the agricultural revolution but the industrial revolution, we stand in an onslaught of raining paradigms, and we are capable of understanding and internalizing all of them. Our minds are that fluid and that able. There are so many new paradigms, so many emerging worldviews popping and pinging around the media universe that the effect is like so many flash bulbs attempting to capture the celebrity of absolute truth as she aloofly meanders down the red carpet. If one of these paradigms, these exclusive systems of linguistic truth that define the norms of our culture, were to catch, and if this new story was about living in ecological accord with the carrying capacity of our natural world, might we then find ourselves in a post-consumer society, full of restored ecologies free of industrial-age pollution?
New paradigms reveal themselves as revolutions – fundamental shifts in the way humans organize and govern themselves and their resources. The three major, historical revolutions that have determined our course as the world-changing species that we are have been the cognitive, the agricultural and the industrial. One way or another, we will soon be ensconced in the fourth great paradigm-shift: the ecological. It will be a new world view that we realize and thrive in, or it will be a time of unilateral destruction. I certainly don’t mean to offer some doom and gloom prophecy, nor do I want to necessarily echo the end-times scenarios that the environmentalists have been going on about for decades. My concern is with the linguistic and pictorial mechanisms that trigger the deepest shifts in our collective psyche. Is it possible to clear the fog of alienation from the natural world that has plagued our society for so many thousands of years? I think the possibility is there and I have found an orientation through this dense forest. It is a simpler path than you might think, dependent on a linguistic determinism, or how the words people use determines the way people think.
I realize I am being rather absolutist when I’m talking about one cultural paradigm, one societal relationship with the natural world. There are certainly different degrees, most notably among indigenous cultures around the globe and across millennia who never experienced, or were delayed in experiencing, or for whatever local reason didn’t need the agricultural revolution, for example. Although I reject the outright idea that somehow indigenous cultures, as a rule, are somehow more in tuned to nature. There are valid examples, even arguably more examples of the rule than exceptions to it, where an indigenous mindset created a local culture where resource extraction doesn’t exceed the natural processes of replenishment within that system – perhaps the single-most qualifiable metric for a society in tune with nature – but I am not concerned with the past on this micro-geographic, societal level. I am concerned with the larger, macro-patterns across the global-human phenomenon. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a consciousness singularity, a unity of culture, despite the form of language and tradition, is more possible now than ever. Above and perhaps even because of the rhetoric, the political vitriol, and the polarized attitudes that exist within any given, contemporary culture, the trajectory towards the next tipping point is coming into focus.
With the world’s current world population of humans at 7.6 billion, we are seeing something unexpected: the diminution of many of the social plagues that have hounded humanity since the birth of civilizations. Most notably, these trends are evidenced in two areas: global war and global poverty. Both these terrible forces seem to be ebbing in the decades since World War Two. It is doubtful that the concurrent facts of both an extended period of statistically relative, worldwide peace and the downward trend of extreme poverty are both anomalies. What is clear is that the modernist paradigm of economic affluence is based on resource extraction, both energetically and materially. The way that both these agreeable trends will end is over the systemic inability to satisfactorily allocate natural resources to the ever-upward, exponential growth of our population.
If you face one direction, you can hear humanity’s cry of despair – a common lament, based in a pervading fear that seems hardwired into the human condition, that all society is inevitably headed to the eschaton. There is a cry even that we have the license to strip the last of the world’s otherwise pristine, living systems and all the treasure they hold, on our way down into the pit. It is as if there is a cultural pathos, perhaps rooted in capitalism ideology, that whatever we can take, we should take. You can hear the indulgent and unwise voices gather in a chorus against the possibility of a vibrant, and abundantly biodiverse future – that the world is not alive unto itself but a pool of material for us to burn, to continue this illusion of plenty, where we can forever keep our lights inefficiently bright, and our cars unreasonably thirsty for gas. This is the dark, shadow story of who we are and what we deserve. This is the world’s worst story.
I am a child of the west, specifically California. I was born in 1973, the same year as the passing of the Endangered Species Act, in a brief time in the early 1970’s called by some “the Golden Age of Environmental Legislation.“ Since then, in my country, I’ve watch the slow estrangement of one half (the Republican party) of our government turn from any policy deemed environmental. And I ‘ve witnessed the other half (the Democratic party) co-opt the environmental movement, glomming it into a so-called Leftist agenda, adopting a no-compromise, line-in-the-sand posture. The whole dysfunctional system resembles a family squabble and the entrenched vocabulary we use to describe the political dynamic exacerbates the situation, infecting it to such a degree that often arguments, rooted in punditry, become an ineffectual din for only the deaf.
The language of this cultural polarization which has trickled down from our government, particularly with respect to all things having to do with the environment, is rooted in capitalist salesmanship. The relativism of the moral context, where all evil is defined by what may undermine any special interest, is exploited by professional politicians to the detriment of the common good. The core idea that the health, robustness, and resiliency of the natural world inexorably means the same for the human world is so basic an idea that to argue it politically is to expose a system, so laden with an obsession for fractionating profit, that its heart must be rotten and deserves to be cut out. We begin with the words and the art; remember, they are all we’ve got. Two words need to be remade: both Environmentalism and Sustainability have been appropriated by the antagonists of what the words signify. The (the environmental and the coming post-environmental) movement itself needs to abandon them. They now are employed as dog-whistle words for propaganda against the movement to designate a whole set of dogmatic baggage unrelated to the movement itself. To again approach the moral imperative of how to best steer the ship away from the tyranny of its extraction-over-replenishment vector, we (all of us) need to uncouple the movement from any other order of the day.
The legacy of one hundred thousand years of storytelling is reflected in both, our individual minds and the collective mind we each tap whenever we speak, create and love. Our society is built on stories. A story, either composed of words or pictorially rendered in art, transmits apprehendable information – a flower well rendered in paint, for example, transmits viable immediate beauty, everything a human could know, or at least needs to know to identify and appreciate the reality of that flower on some, almost metabolic level; something core revealed and celebrated – a communion and an atonement with that flower’s world. We change the story, we change the world. Depending on how we fare the coming, inevitable paradigm shift, we will be charting a course not only of our continued human residency here over the next one hundred or five hundred years, but over the next ten thousand years. Let’s go ahead and trust each other enough to begin that conversation.
I delivered this Keynote Address to the Association of Environmental and Outdoor Educators on Saturday, March 30th, 2019 at their annual, statewide conference at Westminster Woods in Occidental California. I’ve edited a few comments as they were delivered and then presented here, but for the most part, it is presented verbatim. – Obi Kaufmann
I came down from Sierraville yesterday, which is about 35 miles north of Lake Tahoe, where I am living these days to be with you all here today. I am working on a series of books regarding conservation ecology in California and the parade of deadline my publisher has me up against means, that for the most part, snow has been my experience of spring. Coming home to the East Bay yesterday, I was deeply startled to suddenly apprehend the vernal, viridian wave across the hills. So much so that I was moved to pull off the road and scribble these few lines down, that looking at them again this morning I found them to be an appropriate and personal introduction to both me and the themes of my address today, so please indulge me:
The greater trajectory of my study, the life long song of praise I sing, the deeper quest for the purest expression of gratitude that I can most easily give away, is now just beginning to reveal itself as a single question: what is the character of our natural world once we are through telling our fossil fueled fantasy of endless growth? Once we prove to ourselves, the elasticity of our own consciousness and transform the story at the heart of the next version of society we invent, what scars will we map across the body of our beloved place? What narrative will we employ to justify our historic arrogance that presumed nature to work in any other way but a cycle?
I want to begin today by addressing the theme of this weekend’s conference and explore what exactly is the box that we are thinking outside of. It is clear to me that together, the inclusive-We, the We that includes every thinking human, regardless of agency or ideology, stands at a precious moment in history defined by transformation. This transformation is manifesting as a change across the natural world and is mirroring or will mirror a paradigm change in the fundamental fabric of the human psyche. I see this transformation effecting the biosphere across temporal horizons at different scales of society.
In my address I will be using the word society a lot. I am using the word society to denote a whole nation of people governed by some kind of legislative core. As multifaceted, fitful and slippery as any given society is, whether at regional, state, national or multi-national scale, I use the word society as a dialectic in context to the other frames of reference used to lump together the human world. The society sits between the community, those gathered here today, and the world population, which is the whole-global, contemporary corpus of humanity.
To describe the temporal and ecological context of contemporary humanity and the crossroads we find ourselves at, let’s image a mountain peak. On that mountain peak stands a little girl, and let’s let her represent humanity, human consciousness and the human faculty to understand a greater context for itself. The mountain represents a couple of concepts: one, in the foreground, the slopes down from the summit, the capacity of human-civilization to transform its natural environment in the field of history – and two, the far horizon, the viewshed of the mountain represents the history of life on earth. Turn one way, call it east, and squinting, you can see the beginning of life, deep in the Proterozoic Period of Earth’s Precambrian Era, 3.5 billion years ago. Turn the other way, call it west, and look at the sunset of life on planet earth – that too is about the same distance away – 3 billion years or so, when the core of our happy sun begins to shrink and brighten on its journey to become a red giant (in about ten billion years, when its outer edge will extend past Mars) and will pass a threshold, after the oceans’ have evaporated to destroy even all the bacteria on our terrestrial globe. We are in the middle of the story and there is absolutely we can do about that.
Let us now focus on the slopes of time and space closer to our stout-hearted little human on her summit. Turn to the east again, and look down the hill, 170 years into the past. It’s 1848 in California, and you can hardly believe the extent and capacity of life on display across this truly golden state. You can hardly believe it because you can hardly recognize it. The forests of widely spaced Ponderosa and Calocedrus trees you walk through as you descend down the west slope of the Sierra Nevada into the Sacramento Valley exist in a strict and normalized fire regime where a thousand annual fires, both anthropogenic and lightning-sourced average 300 acres with an intense burn zone of 10 acres. By way of comparison, the 2014 Rim Fire near Yosemite burned 257,000 acres with an intense burn zone of 34,000 acres. The Sacramento Valley itself at this time, is a biyearly display of birdlife, a megapolis of avian activity on the Pacific Flyway – their habitat, the Sacramento, a river unchained that routinely grew to be thirty miles wide was patrolled by a legion of 2,000 pound grizzly bears that hunted teaming populations of people-sized salmon. The Coastal ranges, packed green all summer long with bunchgrass butt up against the greatest belt of sempervirens old-growth the Quaternary Period has left, the Redwood coast.
Turn now to the other direction, to the west in our thought experiment and consider California, 170 years from now: the California we encounter then will be as unrecognizable to us now as the pre-goldrush California seems to this contemporary reality. Even in the wake of what is considered the best case scenario for climate change, a two degree Celsius change of global atmospheric temperature, California could be radically transformed despite any engineered intervention.
Although most models predict California will not experience a dramatically decline in precipitation over the next one hundred-plus years, we are entering a century that will have us considering a new kind of drought: snow drought. In the California epoch of snow drought, the precipitation we do get could be mostly in the form of rain and it could fall in huge amounts, sometimes called rain-bombs by climate scientists, over shorter intervals. If this happens, it will change the traditions of California agriculture, development and urbanization as radically, suddenly and as spectacularly as these industries came into being and continue to presently expand .
Snow drought could change the soil-climate, the nature of aridity within the living, top-layers of California’s earthen landscape and the ecosystems will flee north and upslope to seek both cooler temperatures and respite from the cycles of wildland and suburban interface-inferno that will happen with increasing intensity, at any given month of the year. We could see our colder, subalpine forests fade to extirpation as they are invaded by the conifers running up the mountains. We could witness our chaparral and our desert habitats increasing fragmented by willful invasive grasses that seek to break the natural systems of succession and engage in whole-hearted, ecological conversion. Now, while this picture is bleak, I’ve got another one on deck, stay with me – we are not fated to realize that particular feedback cascade.
The larger point that I am making is that because of events that have already begun their course, because of pieces already in play, California will have undergone two major, ecological transformations within three centuries following European settlement. Three hundred years is the blink of an eye in most, geophysical scales of measure. This period of time, probably to be remembered as the lifespan of the carbon-economy, the fossil-fuel economy in California, represents a bottleneck. Not just a bottleneck for our own species to survive its relative adolescence, but a bottleneck for all of our endemic biodiversity. The key, I believe to understanding the larger context by which we survive and thrive, along with our more-than-human community, following the bottleneck, is by understanding what can be called, in our conceptual model, the middle ground.
Let’s return to the conceptual peak and revisit our tiny human as she looks to the middle ground. The middle ground in this model is a time-horizon of between ten and fifteen thousand years. Turning again to the easterly-past, this is a period of time when there was a clear uptick in traceable evidence of the ancient people of California. Around the globe humans ventured in this broad and vague, aeon-wide swath of human history. Everywhere that humans went, humans became very good at destroying large animals. These animals – herbivorous megafauna, were keystone species in their own local systems and their decline precipitated a positive feedback cascade that launched the now-famously called Sixth Extinction. California is a text book example of how this unfolded and continues to unfold.
It is probable that humans arrived thousands of years prior to the discovery of the Calico Man culture, or the Channel Island cultures of between 12 and 14 thousand years ago. This horizon line is significant because it empirically represents not only a timeframe for humanity in this place, but across the Holocene, we have local evidence of an anthropogenically-caused decline of biodiversity, human-adaptation to it and the natural world’s recovery from it. When I say recovery, I mean the filling of niches within ecographies (spatial ecologies) around the state with invasive species that over time, established their own rules of equilibrium in the adaptive cycle within a relatively short amount of time. For example, how bison, elk and moose from Beringia filled the niches left by dwindling populations of camel, horse and mammoth. And humans, spending thousands of years learning pyro-technologies of prescription burning for food production, established ancient cultures with stable populations in every corner of the state. I am not saying that the decline of megafauna populations around the world was necessarily analogous to the rate at which we are losing our biodiversity today. And, I’m not saying that we should or can turn back the clock, although it might be turned back for us – what I am saying is that the time-horizon is significant when we turn our attention to the west from our summit view.
Ten thousand years from now is an exciting prospect. If you listen to too much main-stream and social media, you may be worried about the human race making it until next Tuesday. I’d like to trust you with greater thought. I’d like to ask for your trust to begin the conversation where we are imagining humanity, thriving in a beautifully fecund California ten thousand years from now.
In order to begin that conversation, we had better turn our attention back to the girl standing on the mountain top. The question we ask ourselves there then is, is there a box on her head? Can she see anything out of the box at all or does truth exist only in her mind? This is the box we need to think outside of. This is the box we are discussing this weekend.
If it is the case that she has a box on her head, than the most important question becomes how do we get her to take off the box? We can’t take off the box for her – that’s inside the box thinking. There is no external source that will present to us, a vision for us to follow – the path is internal, and the path will shift our paradigm. To remove the box, we have to not only understand what inside the box thinking is, but how inside the box thinking doesn’t work.
Inside the box thinking says that society, with simply enough information and with enough exposure to the facts will understand and adopt climate change for the threat to civilization that it is and will respond to the threat in kind. Outside the box thinking understands that the human mind, having developed in the African savanna over the past five million years, did not evolve to evaluate and properly assess the hyperobject that climate change is, for the threat that it poses.
Inside the box thinking says that faith in technology and the free market system will invent some deus ex machina, some device, or system of devices that will quote-unquote “clean up our mess” and present some band-aid solution for our bevy of ecological problems. Outside the box thinking understands that unless we change the story, the story of our own anthrocentric value above all others with whom we share this world, a worldview I would argue as being Abrahamic in cultural-origin – a worldview that fundamentally challenges the basic notion of humanity existing in tandem with a larger, living network of natural systems – the technology won’t save us for any meaningful amount of time from these imminently collapsing, unraveling feedback cascades that we find everywhere.
Inside the box thinking wishes to dismiss me as a neo-liberal, tribal-thinker who works merely for protections of the natural world, such as personhood status for watersheds, above the concerns for the human economy upon which thousands of Californian families depend. Outside the box thinking has me standing with the children of the Sunrise Movement imagining a prosperous, post-carbon economy where we avoid the coming, Malthusian catastrophe by shedding our political subscriptions, even for a proverbial moment, to remake our collective power.
To put it simply, inside the box thinking says that there are two types of people in this world – outside the box thinking knows better.
Inside the box thinking has you all boiled down to an industrial role that reflects deeper economic patterns. As teachers and educators, you are not unlike line-workers who have the repetitive and remedial job of assembling citizens from behind the factory door from where they will emerge, largely identical. Outside the box thinking has you as the greatest and most potent army the democratic world has got, mobilized and deployed at the front lines of the war on ignorance. I don’t mean to fall back on military jargon, which is often solely about anesthetizing more-nuanced and sensitive truths, but the struggle to get that box of that little girl’s head is a long and potentially brutal campaign that requires strategy, discipline and valor.
I would like to pause here and discuss why I chose to engender the tiny human to represent humanity at the top of the conceptual mountain. I don’t mean at all to imply that the box is on her head because I call her a girl – in fact it is quite the opposite: it may be that only she has the power to remove the box – he cannot do it. The future is not only female, so is the present. And she is also, most-certainly not white, probably transcends polarized, sexual-identity and doesn’t come from wealth. What I mean when I rather flippantly invoke the T-Shirt axiom that the future is female, with my unavoidably male voice is a deeper trend in the emergent, ecological paradigm. I don’t mean to invoke images of mythological Amazonia, ruled by shield maidens with long hair, as cool as that would be. I mean that a serious investigation of contemporary global demographics coupled with the progressive course of psychological dynamics through human and civil rights paints a picture of what has been called ecofeminism.
Ecofeminism is a word that will turn off half the audience who believe it to be a political idea, and thus one with a high-degree of elective agency – agency that is rooted in male-psychology, not female.
Ecofeminism is often mentioned in the same breath as patriarchy – as its diametrically opposed force. It isn’t. But because of this pairing – whatever it is, or it isn’t, is now tied to words like environmentalism, like sustainable, like even progress, that imply a political dogma under the banner of liberalism (little l) and are dismissed by the coded, dog-whistle heard by over half of the American populace.
If I were a braver poet, if I were less a cis-gendered, white guy, I would have another term – actually, I think the Sunrise Movement, works pretty well – so we will let it stand. Let’s let this stand too: In Paul Hawken’s extensive 2016 book with the grand title DRAWDOWN, the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming, he estimates that by 1) enabling share-ownership of small businesses around the world commiserate with the total rate of female labor within those business, namely equally pay for equal work, and 2) supplying the paltry, five billion dollar global shortfall for women’s reproductive health and family planning, and 3) if all nations adopted a plan of 100 percent enrollment of girls in primary and secondary schools, the net, cascading effect would be a reduction of 124 gigatons of atmospheric carbon dioxide by the year 2050 – in itself, potentially enough to keep the world from warming to dread catastrophe. And if that what it means to be an ecofeminist, let’s start the line to sign up as one right here and now.
I grew up the son of two scientists. My father was an astrophysicist and my mother was a clinical psychologist. I remember once, I must have been about seven years old and I was sitting in the back seat of the car and I can’t remember exactly the context of the question, but I remember baiting them with the question “where is truth in the universe?” They both responded with out hesitation and simultaneously. My father said physics, my mother said psychology. My folks and I still have a laugh to this day about that moment.
Now, so many years on, I have finally found a third answer. One that I think works better for me to understand the human mind and its relationship to the great world. If the adult me were in that car and was going to blurt out his answer just as my parents did, I would say story.
A story is a work of narrative, a fiction that reveals meaning or a cognitive device that assigns value. Evolutionary anthropologists describe a cognitive revolution that seems to have occurred in our species about seventy to one hundred thousand years ago. This revolution coincided with the first, discernable evidence of art making. Evolutionary biologists have posited that the ability to tell a story, to put together the most advanced, interpersonal communication technology the world has ever known was far in a way more important to our evolutionary success than bipedalism or our opposable thumb. Through the technology of story telling we are able to abstractly remove and maximize selected pieces of our animal instinct, selective pieces of our inherited birthright and store them outside of our bodies, in a conceptual locker for transferability between members of our species. Because of this, it didn’t matter that we were weak apes with limited physicality – we were destined to do what we did and are doing, and we were destined to do it fast.
Stories exist on many conceptual levels. There are stories that exist between individuals, like the one I am telling today, there are stories that occur in popular culture that can reap havoc on collective thought – think marketing, branding, brand-stories, and even advertising. and there are stories that work like rivers through the course of history, guiding our decisions and creating our biases and our normalities. These are the stories that we tell ourselves and these stories, our personal myths, dictate how we live our lives and why. It is by way of a story somewhere deep in me that has it as a normal bias that I should get in a car every morning, drive for hours only then to sit in front of a computer screen for eight hours, get back into the car, do it again, five days a week for 40 years. That sounds like a pretty bad story, one that considers nothing but the story I tell myself to be a productive and prosperous member of society.
I would argue that our story, the story that is human society is ready for a new iteration. The through-line of history, the over-arching story of world civilization is ready for an upgrade and it will either be imposed on us from without or it may emerge spontaneously from within.
The same story that evolved through the second and third human revolutions: the agricultural revolution, about 6,000 years ago, and the industrial revolution, which conceivably began one sunny, Sunday afternoon in June of 1775, when James Watt turned on his steam engine and brought into creation the first carbon emission. I like this date because the forces of human history, the force of story, conspires with other elements of culture. Like this date 1775, the same year that the American Revolution began, beginning the first, large-scale experiment with representative democracy in the modern age. Other great synergies of story-telling that represent leaping shifts in the axis of our worldview occur in the 16th century with the Renaissance and the Copernican revolution of a heliocentric solar system; Darwin’s theory of natural selection (1859) coincides with the beginning of the end of institutional slavery in the United States; the invention of modern art, Pablo Picasso beginning his work on cubism with Georges Braque in 1905 coinciding the same year with Einstein’s discovery of the theory of general relativity. Through all of these examples, there is a scientific discovery corresponding, organically and with minimal obvious connection, that ties to a new story within the humanities. The arts.
If I have a single mentor, a single individual – someone who even amounts to some kind of guru in my own, private constellation, it would probably be our nation’s greatest, living naturalist Edward O. Wilson. In his book The Meaning of Human Existence, he speculates in his usual, casual yet insightful manner that “when aliens come to visit us, they won’t be coming for our science. They have that figured out. They will be coming to discover the humanities. The thing that makes us special.” Being a preeminent biologist, he goes on to explain why we haven’t ever been visited by aliens and why a galactic conquest has never even begun, due to the nature of the micro-biome within individuals collapsing under alien, geophysical forces, but that is another story.
Back to the box, or rather what the box signifies. For me, the box was always and continues to be, quite literally, a piece of paper. Throughout high school, I spent my afternoons after school tromping around Mount Diablo. I was and am so in love with that mountain. Playing with tarantulas, mapping the sage mazes, tracking coyote, drawing wildflowers. Mount Diablo was the cosmos.
And then I would go home and my father, the mathematician would sit me down for a few hours of calculus homework. Stack of paper – can of sharp number twos; still kind of the way I work today. My worldview, my story was molded in such a way that the discipline I was always studying was not the discipline itself, but a mode of investigation, based on observation, hypothesis, experiment, conclusion and consensus. This loose appropriation of the scientific method leads naturally to the 21st century theory of applied education that involves instilling, as values of academic discipline: critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication. These are the values that are proof against the wave of automation technologies; these are the inroads by which the girl on the mountain is trusted to remove the box from her head; these are elements by which new stories are found and told.
To conclude, I am going to address you all collectively as educators – a word that in my mind, carries with it the not only the obvious role as teacher and mentor, but also activist, and even more subtly yet with all the profound weight and burden of being the stalwart defenders against the collapse of civilization, you are the storytellers.
Whatever modicum of success I have realized through the publishing of the California Field Atlas and all the books to come, it is all reflected right back to my open, ready and turned on community that is ready for this nature-first narrative. My books come from me – I’m figuring this stuff out for me, because that is the posture I am comfortable taking and giving away in this bound thing that approximates cogent apprehendability. My conclusions have lead me to help with the uncovering of new stories, tracked through emerging techniques of multidisciplinary conservation ecology. These stories reveal that all natural systems are living systems and deserve an emancipated rebirth from the old modes of utility, of extraction without reciprocation. Thinking outside the box towards a new inclusive ecological paradigm is the beacon of hope we, as storytellers, offer and I believe it may be the only story that is at all worth telling.
“Methods and Parameters of Invasive Ecology” by Obi Kaufmann, March 2019
note 1, context: The natural world moves in apprehendable rhythms and cycles that reveal themselves to the scientist and to the artist alike. It is my hope that these distillations of creative and empirical truth, expressed as new, working models and supported by sound theory, serve as tools to better understand the beauty of these ecological concepts. Uniting Invasive ecology and what can be called Disruption ecology, with both Conservation and Restoration ecology, I want to map the unifying systems that govern the bedrock of all living networks.
note 2, reference: these essays make reference to other works that will appear in published works to come, so please disregard specific reference to contextual elements, posted here that make reference to other content tables and source, most obiviously Diagram 1 being referred to as 04.02 and Diagram 2 being referred to as 04.03.
note 3, locality: While these accompanying essays make specific reference to examples in California, the two diagrams are meant to present universal, ecological principles, regardless of locality.
note 4, the adaptive cycle; the pattern of growth, conservation, release and reorganization that governs the life patterns of spatial ecology (ecography.) 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 a release of stored enery at the opposite side of the diagram from the generation of it. The decimination releases resources that make way for the reorganization of those structures. -Obi Kaufmann
When I reference a singular, identifiable, and healthy ecosystem, I mean that it subscribes to a working adaptive cycle, and optimally utilizes all the biotic and abiotic resources present at its disposal to push towards a state of equilibrium. It is equally important to examine the systems of evolution that work to undermine and exploit the adaptive cycle and their methods and consequences of disruption and invasion in California and even more generally, in any natural system. All ecosystems are subject to invasion that threatens equilibrium. Equilibrium is not a state that, if subject to any consistent disturbance is held for any amount of time. Invasivity, either the perpetrating agent or the ecosystem defending against it, is any biological exotic that threatens established, native patterns within the adaptive cycle.
Whether we are talking about ancient invasiveness, recent invasions or biological invasions of the future spurred by anthropogenic climate change, all biological change agents employ common strategies to do what they do: altering homeostasis within the adaptive cycle of any given ecosystem, towards their own ends. Instead of, for example, having a map that describes Sudden Oak Death across California, I think it may be more useful to describe the larger system that particular pathogen works in, and thereby I am describing all pathogens. The following two diagrams (04.02 and 04.03) are models of applied generalities. Nature is very complex and very innovative and in the wake of anthropogenic climate change, this systems-thinking author is sure that these diagrams must be incomplete.
Diagram 1 (04.02) – Species Invasiveness Theory and Methodology in Ecosystems
Stage 1: tools of invasivity
The methodology used by all invasive species to infiltrate and overtake an ecosystem falls under three basic, evolutionary concept-strategies. To advance its agenda, an invasive may use one, two or all three mechanisms against a native regime.
1a. Increased competitive ability; when introduced to a novel environment, often an exotic species experiences rapid genetic changes because of new selection pressures.
1b. Novel weapons; Introduced species often utilize alien systems of biochemical interaction that are unknown to the endemic systems present.
1c. Disturbance; Invasives can be adapted to, and may influence altered, abiotic regimes, such as fire or flood, and use them to their advantage.
A good example in California of an invasive that used, and continues to use, all three of these tools is the pathogen known commonly as Sudden Oak Death, Phytopthora ramorum. After arriving to California in the mid-1990’s inside of nursery plants from China, (it may have had multiple waves of introduction at multiple ports) Sudden Oak Death quickly spread to epidemic proportions, now having killed millions of trees and devastated about 230 square miles of Tan Oak, Lithocarpus densiflorus, and Coast Live Oak, Quercus agrifolia, forest – although it also infects at least eight other, native tree species. The pathogen, called an oomycete, behaves similarly to a fungus. Upon arrival, a single genotype evolved into at least three or four strands, better adapted to the local forests (1a). It seems that the pathogen then proceeded with its lethal agenda, by utilizing Bay Laurel, Umbellularia californica, to persist through the dry season as Bay Laurel doesn’t die once infected (1b). To make matters worse, the pathogen monopolized on some successive, rainy seasons that boosted its ability to spore and reproduce quickly (1c).
Stage 2: categories of invasive types
All invasive species fall into three categories. Just like in Stage 1, a single species might be one, two or all three types of invasive depending on its evolutionary agenda and the niche it is trying to occupy. These categories describe an exotic organism’s relationship role that it is attempting to infiltrate the native ecosystem through.
2a. Predator. A predatory exotic species may infiltrate a native food web on any trophic level. A predatory species is most commonly an introduced animal. Examples include the Northern Pike, Esoc Lucius and the Southern watersnake, Nerodia fasciata.
2b. Pathogens. A pathogenic exotic species may infect vulnerable ecosystem and propagate itself as a disease. West Nile Virus is a mosquito-borne disease that continues to plague California and can infect birds, humans, horses and other animals.
2c. Competitors. A competitive exotic species may employ a tool (see Stage 1) to displace a local endemic from its niche, possibly transforming the ecosystem itself. The whole structure of California’s grassland communities was restructured with invasive plant family-species such as the Bromes, Cheatgrass, Yellow Starthistle, and hundreds of others.
Stage 3: invasive deployment
3a. introduction. This aspect of diagram 04.02 represents a temporal horizon that it utilized by invasive species to carry out their agenda. The introduction of an exotic species may be accidental (rats on a boat), incidental (carried by wind and fire), or intentional (planting forage for domestic animals).
3b. establishment. It is at this stage that the invasive decides to “play nice” with others or not. If the evolutionary decision is made to transform the ecosystem in some, fundamental way it may be considered a harmful invasive. If it doesn’t, it may be on the path towards naturalization.
3c. spread. Depending how the exotic, once established species vectorizes its growth, the effects across the ecosystem can be deleterious, as described in stage 4: ecological consequence, or a new equilibrium may begin to immediately reveal itself, as described in diagram 04.03.
Stage 4: ecological consequence
4a. habitat fragmentation. All ecosystems strive towards equilibrium, it is a function of their community. These four consequences are the disparate results following the spread of an invasive through the different, living tiers of the ecosystem. These consequences are from harmful invasives. They are arranged in no particular order. For example, habitat fragmentation occurs over a medium to large scale when native groups are isolated from one another.
4b. contamination. Contamination of the adaptive cycle within an ecosystem may manifest as alterations to the nutrient cycles or a disturbance regime or even a contamination of genetic material due to hybridization. When the invasive Smooth Cordgrass, Spartina alterniflora, hybridized with the native California cordgrass, Spartina foliosa, in the San Francisco Bay, it quickly spread to previously uninhabited mudflats.
4c. pollution. Biological pollution is when disfunction is propagated within an ecosystem because of the advance of an invasive species. A disfunction is any alteration, or set of alterations, that presents a clear threat to the normal operations of the system. For example, an invasive plant, such as French Broom, Genista monspessulana, is a ubiquitous invasive plant across Northern California. Once established the effects of Broom pollution include threats to local wildlife, degraded range and cropland, increased wildfire potential, reduced water resources and accelerated erosion.
4d. depletion. The robbing from any resource store within an ecosystem is known as depletion. Depletion may result because of any of the other three consequences detailed here. Depletion may involve the lessening of any chemical resource (i.e. The nutrient cycle) or any physical resource (i.e. sunlight) that had previous assisted with the normal functioning of the ecosystem prior to introduction.
Diagram 2 (04.03) – Ecological invasivity thresholds and mediation strategies
The ability for an invasive species, or community of invasive species, to alter the ecosystem they are introduced to, and the resiliency of that ecosystem to withstand the invasion is the crux of invasive ecology. This diagram details three models that represents two sides of this ecological tension and the temporal narrative how the tension is resolved over time. As established in diagram 04.02, invasives have an arsenal of tools at their disposal, and in conditions where invasion is possible, the ecosystem will always be altered. How that ecosystem is altered is dependent on characteristics inherent in the endemic system and how rapidly the invasive species’ consequence can be mitigated.
Through these three models, a system of conditions is explored by which ecosystems fight their battle against invasion by assimilation, redefining themselves towards equilibrium – the goal of any healthy, natural community. The first model describes what are the characteristics of vulnerability are that present the ecosystem with the parameters that make it a ripe candidate for invasion. The second model describes what are largely, anthropogenic management strategies to maintain or restore ecological equilibrium. The second model describes the other side of the coin from invasive ecology, the study of conservation ecology. The third model is the battlefield upon which this drama unfolds: time. Given the parameters of model 1, applied to the field of time, will decide how the ecosystem will transform from what it was to it will become once the invasion is resolved.
Model 1: Invasivity parameters within ecosystems
invasivity. This is the starting point. All the invasive methodologies described in Stage 1 and Stage 2 of diagram 04.02 live here. How they manifest (Stage 3 and Stage 4 of diagram 04.02) is dependent on the five conditions of invasibility within the native ecosystem described in this diagram as surrounding the invasive starting point.
1a. natural enemies. One of the primary factors that control the populations of any exotic species is how, when released into a new ecosystem, they find themselves without the natural enemies of their former environment.
1b. empty niche. It is often simple enough for an invasive to step in for another organism missing from a network and take advantage of resources not currently being utilized. The niche may be empty because of extirpations (See model 3) or because of evolution within geographically separate but physiographically similar environments.
1c. species richness. Species rich ecosystems are more resistant to transformation by invasion than species poor ecosystems. For example, second-growth, timber harvested pine forests are more vulnerable to devastation by a single species of beetle than old-growth forests, rich in conifer diversity that leaves the beetle without a clear vector of single species transmission.
1d. propagule pressure. A propagule is a seed or any means by which an organism reproduces itself. More seeds means a greater likelihood of an established invasion. With increased temperatures over the past one hundred years, we are seeing this kind of invasion take place in high-mountain meadows across the state. Conifers from lower elevations are invading subalpine communities and are launching a campaign of conversion (see Model 3).
1e. highly evolved competition. Habitats that have evolved extremely high levels of competition between organisms for existing resources may be more capable of resisting invasion because of any given organisms ability to out compete a potential invasive.
Model 2: ecosystem equilibrium and management strategies
equilibrium. This term is used in this diagram as an indicator of a broad condition that all living communities tend toward: the condition by which, the ecosystem realizes an optimal balance of resources in and resources out. An ecosystem in the state of equilibrium is self-perpetuating and is interrupted only by agents that spur succession or conversion (see Model 3).
2a. restoration. Restoration ecology is the science of returning a disturbed ecosystem back to a state of equilibrium that it was in prior to disturbance, either by a biologic invasion or other agent, i.e. fire or flood. Restoration ecology is reactive, where Conservation ecology is proactive and whose general practice is described in the following for methodologies.
2b. prevention. Inhibiting a vector of change is the most successful and cost-effective strategy for the management of change agents. There is a litany of preventative techniques at work across California, from the governmental policy of inspection on the transport of potentially invasive species through to the prescription burning by the Forest Service to maintain a healthy adaptive cycle.
2c. DRE – early detection, rapid response, and eradication. As early in the deployment stage (diagram 04.02 stage 3) an invasive species can be surveilled, the possibility of its successful failure for either conversion or succession will be determined. This can be a difficult process, as it is important to not also destroy any native organism within a similar niche. The eradication of Black rats, Rattus rattus, who threatened shorebirds and their ecosystem on Anacapa Island in 2002, was successfully carried out with the concurrent effort to preserve the native Anacapa deer mouse, Peromyscus maniculatus anacapae.
2d. long-term control and management. Long terms efforts to minimize naturalized species can be as intensive as they are expensive. Mediation is the strategy for some invasives that may be, either providing some established service, or exist on such a scale that eradication is impossible. Controlling feral pigs by hunting and timed grazing to control invasive weeds are two examples of ongoing strategies to control the spread of destructive invasives.
2e. biocontrol. Biocontrol is when another species is introduced to prey upon an already ravaging invasive species and the threat of the second species’ presence is deemed less of a threat than the first’s continued spread. For example, St. John’s Wort, Hypericum perforatum, a poisonous plant to grazing cows, was successfully mitigated in Siskiyou county in the 1950’s by the introduction of Chrysolia beetles that eat the weed.
Model 3: invasive based, ecological transformation
3a. time. Time is the key component that either assures the success or the failure of any evolutionary process. If a change agent, either biological or otherwise, is introduced slowly enough into a ecosystem that is in equilibrium, it may be possible for that ecosystem to absorb that change agent and disarm it efficacy. Heat, with specific reference to anthropogenic climate change, increases that rate at which all reactions occur – whether at the chemical or the ecological level. Speeding up the process of either the rate at which change agents return (i.e. changing the fire or flood regime due as resulted by climate change) or the interval by which ecosystems can absorb any given, invasive threat (i.e. the invasion of exotic grasses through fire distribution,) has the potential to not only fundamentally change the nature of the ecosystem, but (with enough heat, contracting the amount of time for any adaptation) may collapse the whole system itself.
3b. extirpations. Extirpation is when a species is either intentionally or unintentionally made locally extinct. Through competition or displacement between rival organisms, or through non-adaptability with the establishment of some new regime, extirpations are inevitable. Often, a cascading, domino effect forms if the exotic is not able to fulfill the services of the endemic organism, and many species fade away. An example of this in California might be how so many Salmon varieties have been extirpated from their headwater-spawning grounds by dams. This has lead to depletion of nutrients from headwater-forests that has lead to the simplification of the food web in those forests and diminished populations of all types of organisms found there.
3c. naturalizations. A naturalized species is one that has invaded and has been assimilated into the ecosystem, successfully propagating itself, behaving like a native. Naturalization takes successive generations of multiple species-members within the community to determine if the invasion is fundamentally transformative (converted) or not (succeeded).
3d. converted. A converted ecosystem is one that, because of a single change agent, or a series of connected change agents, is destroyed and transformed into a different kind of ecosystem. European grasses, that need to burn every year moving through a forest can transform that forest into a grass land in a relatively small amount of time. A converted ecosystem is defined by the collapse of the adaptive cycle.
3e. succeeded. A succeeded ecosystem is one that, because of a single change agent, or a series of connected change agents, is pushed from one segment of the adaptive cycle to the next. If this procession of succession is not dismantled by the change agency in a short enough period of time, there is a opportunity for that agency to become naturalized and for the ecosystem to realize further equilibrium.
Ecosystems change. It is what they do. By understanding the mechanisms of change can the consequences be mitigated. The idea of equilibrium inside an ecosystem is a state that is only possible in ecological isolation. In the 21st century, ecological isolation doesn’t exist. Humans are the single most destructive invasive species the planet may have ever known. Alas, humans are also the only species to understand the mechanics of invasivity and are potentially able to engage, restore and conserve, valuable ecological networks throughout California and beyond.
Home of the California Field Atlas and the work of Obi Kaufmann