1 August 2007: Lessons from the Pine Beetle

Lessons from the pine beetle

“Only the rocks live forever.” It is an aphorism from American Indian spiritual philosophy evinced from their empirical observation of the natural world. Quantum physics, however, tells us that perspective may be invalid. While we cannot say with certainty that nothing lives forever, we can say with relative certainty that nothing stays the same. Change is not only inevitable; it is also continuous. Change is reality, and it is the fear of that reality—the permanent lack of constancy—that gives rise to political conservatism. That, however, is a matter for another column.

Taking my cue from Thoreau to learn by observing Nature, there is a certain boulder I pass each time I hike Herman’s Gulch. Each time I pass it, maybe a hundred times by now, it looks the same, yet I understand it isn’t. Even more so, the rock changes as I view it. Erosion reduces its size imperceptibly, and every electron of every atom is in motion.

Along the trail, each step I take leaves a footprint, which may be imperceptible but, nonetheless, having lasting consequences. We use the concept of a footprint to describe or define certain situations or events, such as the footprint of one’s house or the I-70 corridor. Like my footprints on the trail, such a footprint is an on-going, continuously impacting process. It plays itself out in complex ways with unpredictable and never-ending consequences.

The pine beetle infestation provides another Thoreauian learning moment. The pine beetles are simply doing what Nature asks them—to thin out overpopulated, dense forests primarily of lodge-pole pines. From our conditioned, aesthetic point of view, the result of their work is ugly, destructive, and, most important to some, devastating to property values. Never mind that little pines and future pines are thanking the pine beetles for helping rid the forest of their elders who didn’t have the good sense to move on so to give little ones space to grow, even though the old guys didn’t have much choice about that.

From that we can learn two lessons. The first is that while the pine beetles’ feed-fest is a periodic natural occurrence, it has been exacerbated by two human activities: suppression of fire and the incessant burning of fossil fuels over the past two centuries, leading to global warming. A natural brake on the munching of pine beetles used to be a bitter cold spell of minus 30 degrees for an extended period of a few weeks. Like the dodo bird though, those days are long gone.

The second learning is our need to understand that our presence on earth has been limited by Nature and that we have, in the words of former governor Dick Lamm, the duty to die. Just like we resent guests in our homes who overstay their welcome, Nature resents our over-extending our stays with artificial means.

James Lovelock in his Gaia Theory posits that Earth is a self-adjusting entity that makes periodic adjustments to provide an environment conducive to life. He concurs with those who argue we are at the tipping point of entering a 200,000-year-long Hot Age. His point is that while Earth has had the innate ability to regulate herself over the past four billion years, the human component has overtaxed her immune system. Consequently, Mother Gaia may take other corrective actions that may not include, for example, the continuation of the human species.

Change is not coming; it is here. The grand Colorado forests are being decimated before our eyes due to fire and infestations from pine beetle to human. Some of this we still can mitigate with intelligent choices; the rest is past the tipping point, and all we can do is to come to grips with it and make better choices regarding our relationship with nature.

We need to decide as a species about our role in relationship to Nature herself and with every other being with which we share Earth. We need to decide whether we are outside and, therefore, in an adversarial position with Nature and competitive with other life beings, or whether we are just one among the many millions of Gaia’s life forms with the responsibility, as the “thinkers” of the world, to undo the havoc we have wrought.

It’s a grand lesson those pesky little pine beetles are teaching us, if we would just take the time to learn it.

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