Updated: Aug 5
Reflections on nature, ecology, and conservation
Join me on a sunset walk in Sweet Springs Nature Preserve, contemplating hawks, the food chain, and how responsibility is born of connection.
Sweet Water by the Bay
Sweet Springs nature preserve has stood by the back bay since my earliest memory. The 32 acre parcel of land came under the ownership and management of the Morro Coast Audubon society in 1989, when I was three years old.
I prefer to think of participation in the natural world, rather than its preservation in a state separate from us.
Sweet Springs’ freshwater spring-fed pond, which flows into a small salt marsh along Morro Bay’s estuarine back bay, became one of my first connective experiences with the natural world. In my childhood, this small piece of land, dominated by non-native eucalyptus trees, was roosting ground for thousands of Monarchs. Western pond turtles basked on logs in the freshwater pool. Song sparrows and California quail abound in the brush, and at evening's fall the duets of great horned owls taught me some of the first non-human words I remember learning.
Now the invasive eucalyptuses are growing old, having been planted in the early 1900s. They were brought here in an entrepreneurial effort to transform the "unproductive western prairies" – a mindset totally lacking in ecological nuance or even basic understanding. Over time, as we have observed the rhythms of the land, we have begun to grasp the conceit of these previous land management philosophies. An effort is now being undertaken to help return the land to a healthy state of habitat supported by native plant communities. Instead of towering eucalypts smothering the understory with thick oily leaves, we might someday see a grove of oaks, cypresses, and a healthy understory of coastal scrub brush and flowering perennial herbs.
Tending to Our Relatives
Humans are directly related to all other life on Earth. We share something in the range of 20-50% of our genetic makeup with plants; even more with many animals. Through analysis of DNA, science is arriving at the same fundamental conclusions that have been known by Indigenous cultures across the planet for millennia: we are all relatives. This is not a metaphor for connectedness; it is true in a very literal, scientific sense.
It has taken millions, even billions of years of evolution to achieve balance in nature. In a few short decades, capitalist culture has managed to severely disrupt this balance, harming our relatives and ourselves. If we are able to disturb this age-old balance so quickly, what could we do if we put our minds to reconnecting with our relatives? To helping them thrive?
Native plant restoration projects began at Sweet Springs in 2017, after a previously-private parcel was acquired and permitting was secured for land use. Now silver lupines and wild buckwheat flourish, creating the first layers of shrub canopy that are so critical for attracting animals and allowing smaller native plants to thrive.
When we begin to see habitat as a community of relatives, its systems and structures begin to make much more sense in a clear, intuitive way. Certain plants and animals have evolved to fit together. When pieces of this tapestry go missing, it tends to unravel. When properly cared for, the tapestry is repaired and thrives, benefitting all – including humans.
Predators are Caretakers
The word “predator” is often misrepresented in our culture and language. It has been burdened with intensely negative connotations, which is unfortunate. Predators are vitally necessary and positive forces in the landscape.
Ecologically speaking, top predators are the caretakers of habitat. They reside in the smallest trophic niche: the piece of the food web which depends the most upon others. Because solar energy is used up as it transfers through plants’ and animals’ bodies, not all of it becomes available as food when that plant or animal is eaten by a consumer. This means that it is vastly more expensive – in calories – to be a predator than it is to be a plant-eater.
Given this trophic pyramid energy structure, it takes the equivalent of all of the seeds of about 90 fully ripe lupine plants to provide enough energy to feed a red-tailed hawk for one day.
Of course, the animals a hawk is preying upon do not exclusively eat lupine seeds; rather the hawk is indebted to a wide and diverse array of plants which are eaten generally by small mammals. When the system is operating in balance, this exchange of energy works well. But if the foundation of the pyramid is tampered with, the hawk, precariously perched at the top, quickly finds itself in danger.
Buteo jamaicensis, the red-tailed hawk, is our most common diurnal raptor, or bird of prey. It is widespread across North America, and has an incredible diversity of color patterns in its plumage. The red-tails I see here on California's central coast consistently have dark heads, dark wings, and light buff or cream colored chests. Learning to recognize a red-tail in its adult and juvenile plumage – or at a distance in flight – is one of the first great joys of birding in North America. Even for expert birders, this raptor can be tricky in certain circumstances. To learn more about red-tailed hawks, check out Cornell Lab's All About Birds, an awesome free online resource.
The hawk’s position at the energy apex gives it a unique ability to affect the overall ecosystem. If it overeats of the herbivores, it collapses its own foundation by depriving itself of food. If there are not enough hawks to eat the herbivores, the plant population can become overgrazed, which collapses the entire local food chain. This has been witnessed in the relationships between sea otters and kelp forests on the Pacific coast, or between wolves and rivers in Yellowstone.
This balance is a continual act which has been refined by co-evolution over the course of time immemorial. It has existed since long before we existed; predators are the caretakers of ecosystems entire.
Red-tailed hawk & wildfire print available here.
Preservation or Participation?
Thinking about the conservation of nature begs a series of questions and reflections which can be challenging. What precisely, and how much, are we seeking to preserve? In what state should nature be "preserved"? After all, it is a constantly adapting system. Why do we often seem to feel that the preservation of nature excludes human activity? Are humans not also a part of nature? And even if we can decide on a reasonable goal or target, how can we possibly achieve this goal given our present state of relationship with the natural world? A common lament is that there is no way to reconcile humans accessing natural resources and humans over-impacting natural resources.
I prefer to think of participation in the natural world, rather than seeking its preservation in a state separate from us. There is too much of an extractive, colonial mindset entangled within concepts like “wilderness,” “nature,” and “conservation.” These are fallacies that have a severely racist connotation to them through the erasure of Indigenous peoples and their thousand-aged connections to the land. They also deny the possibility of a human co-evolution with natural landscapes – a bitter lingering echo from religious scriptures which place humans as separate from the rest of creation.
The reality is that, since before we were humans, we have been in relationship with this Earth, surrounded by our relatives. As we evolved, we did not do so alone. We did so in response to the living things surrounding us and supporting us. And in turn, we shaped them. For millennia we have shaped this Earth – we have always participated in it. There is no “wild” place on this planet.
Knowing this, we can understand that it must be entirely possible to regrow a culture of respectful connection to the natural world, instead of one based on extraction and exploitation. It is a question of finding mutualism and equality rather than transactions. The huge ecological challenges we currently face – with the very question of life on Earth continuing or not – are rooted in our transactional relationships with the land. If we can instead grow a culture of full engagement with the life around us, we could develop meaningful solutions to these challenges. The question of "how much of nature should we preserve?" would vanish as we instead see ourselves as part of the same tapestry of life as these other living beings, our relatives.
In other words, all of nature would be preserved, while our needs would continue to be fulfilled.
The work of changing an entire culture is a long, fluid process of negotiation and experimentation. It will take the work of many dedicated and intrepid minds working both individually and together, in the same synergistic anarchy which always underlies the processes of culture, society, and life.
But this process of change is perhaps not as intimidating as we might sometimes fear it to be. We as a species have already lived through many great cultural changes. Like the living processes of life itself on Earth, this need for change is an unstoppable force – just as surely as single-celled organisms became algae, and plants, and animals.
Words & images by Derek Schultz.
First salutations to the stars –
thanks to all relatives and ancestors –
may all beings be happy and free.