Tuesday, March 27, 2012
Today I attended a seminar by Mark Anderson, Director of Conservation Science at The Nature Conservancy. He is an ecologist, was co-author of the National Vegetation Classification System, and continues work on the resiliency and connectivity of ecosystems over time. One of the main subjects of his talk, and the one I found most fascinating, was the prevalence of change in ecosystems, and how we can work to conserve ecosystems and natural communities while still allowing change to take place.
What does this have to do with rivers and watershed conservation? Well, aside from the connection between healthy ecosystems and healthy watersheds, there is a more conceptual connection as well. Over the last decade or two, we are increasingly realizing that complex systems like rivers and ecosystems must change. Change is in their nature, and our attempts to halt change, which humans have carried out for various reasons for centuries, are ultimately futile. A river WILL meander, erode, and deposit, and our attempts to stop them from doing so are increasingly expensive and inexpensive. Likewise, ecosystems can and will constantly change, and attempts to preserve them in a static state are essentially futile. Change happens whether we want it or not.
(Centuries of change: clay laid down under an ancient lake, sand laid down by a long-gone manifestation of the Middlebury River, being re-cut by the river of the present day. Each day the river eats away at the bluff more, exposing a fresh layer. The rocks themselves are sedimentary and metamorphic, having originated in deposits in lakes and oceans hundreds of millions of years ago)
Some use the state of ecosystem change as an excuse to avoid conservation and management, but this of course is the wrong line of thinking. As humans we can't stop change, but we can often work to choose a type of change that benefits the ecosystem's stability, and in turn ourselves, over the long run. The same is true with rivers. For instance, we can't encase the Middlebury River in concrete - even if we could ethically justify doing so, we simply can't afford it. But, we also can't allow the river to change course and run down Highway 125, ruining most of the houses in town in the process. What we CAN do is to encourage the river to continue using the forested floodplains it has access to, and perhaps open access to further forested floodplains. In short, if we give the river space to be a river, we also have the economic and ecologic latitude to hold East Middlebury's space near the river for human, nonriver uses. Much is the same with ecosystems. Trying to preserve just one endangered species might be compared with trying to keep the roaming Middlebury River in one path for thousands of years. Instead of concentrating on one path, we need to keep many paths open. We need to adapt to, and thrive under, continued change.
As the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, "No man ever steps in the same river twice". Rivers, nature, indeed our lives are defined by change.
Change has been in my thoughts, because change has entered into my personal life as well. This week, I started a new job, but one involving an old passion I pursued in my past life in California. My work will not be directly related to watershed and river outreach, but instead to understanding, monitoring, and tracking ecosystems and natural communities. I intend to keep this blog going, and hopefully avoid changing the theme of the posts, but readers may notice that the posts become a bit less frequent, and mention ecology and maps a bit more than before.
Like any change, there are positive aspects and negative aspects. The job itself is overwhelmingly positive. The one personal sadness in this change? Because of my work location, I will probably be leaving East Middlebury this summer, and relocating to somewhere around the Burlington or Montpelier area (to be determined). I am very excited to remain in Vermont and to be working with ecosystems over the entire state, but ultimately, the cost for doing this is leaving my home by the Middlebury River.
Part of me really hopes the oxbow cuts off before I leave.