Monday, April 29, 2019

Exploring to Learn About Diversity, and Why It Matters

Found: A decomposing, rat-chewed deer vertebra.
This morning my fabulous group of Wild Art kids and I lay on the forest floor with our heads in the dried leaves, looking up at the canopy of deep, dark, low-branched cedars and verdant freshly-leaved maples, their moss and fern-covered trunks reaching down to the ground beside us. The diversity of greens was shocking. Even the leaves of one maple were a very different green than those of the next. We talked about the diversity of bird sounds we could hear, the sounds of the different sorts of leaves rustling both under us and in the distance. We talked about the dark brown, cone-covered branch hung up in the cedar above us, and one of the kids waxed nearly poetic about the balance of dead and decomposing things with the fresh and living things, the balance of different shapes all around, and even the balance of humans in nature, since mostly we now find ourselves not there.

We agreed that balance is pretty important. And the more diversity we have, the more balance. Diversity and balance are essential for all communities, human and wilderness. And the understanding of this diversity is essential for engaging with the world.

This past weekend I attended a rhododendron symposium in Washington, where a majority of attendees were grey-haired, and one of the burning questions was how to engage younger people in the study and love of rhododendrons. Well, of course it's not just rhododendrons, as various people pointed out - it's wilderness in general. But rhodos are one way to look at the wilderness, and humans need to be connecting more with the wilderness. Rhododendrons, mostly recognized as those car-sized, shiny-leaved, blossom-covered shrubs often lining suburban driveways, don't exactly scream wilderness as they beckon weakly from the garden aisles of Costco and Walmart. But did you know that plants of the rhododendron genus occur in the wild on nearly every continent, from cold alpine climates to temperate lowlands to tropical forests? They grow in swamps, on rocks, on stumps and even in the tree canopy. Did you know that these shrubs can be as big as castles or as small as a football? They include species with leaves as big as serving platters, and as small as your thumbnail, blossoms of all colours and many different shapes, and some are evergreen while others are deciduous. We have a few wild species here in my own ecosystem, and one of those, Labrador Tea, is harvested from the swamps for human consumption. I drink Labrador Tea. It's delicious.

There is quite possibly some kind of rhododendron participating in your ecosystem too, just as there are likely many species of grass, trees, moss, lichen, fungi, mammals, and insects. If you go out in the woods, today, you will find diversity.

My point is this: The great diverse world of rhododendrons is one of millions of interconnected pieces of our complex world that thrives because it is complex. Each individual rhodo species or plant, in its own natural community, is an integral participant in the livelihood of everyone. The diversity of human culture is important, too. Each of us contributes in a unique way to our greater community, creating a balance that keeps us more generally prosperous. It is not enough to write this in textbooks for biology students, or to depend on a few grey-haired plant-enthusiasts to champion the diversity of each species. We all need to champion diversity in general, and to celebrate and nurture it in every part of our lives.

If we don't take our children into the wilderness and allow them to play, how will they know - I mean innately, deeply know - that diversity is essential for life? In the wilderness, diversity is what ensures the cycle of life. A rat chewed the deer vertebra in the photo above, nourishing itself with essential minerals and introducing those and others back into the available substrate when it pooped, so that tasty maple cotyledons now shoot up all over the place, are eaten by a nursing doe, passed to its offspring by lactation, and thus the minerals of that bone become part of the next generation of deer. Nobody told me this; I surmised it from a lifetime of exploring and asking questions and being engaged. You don't have to tell your children this. They don't need to read about this cycle in a text book to understand it. They need to crawl around in the underbrush of the forest and find the bones with their own grubby hands, feeling the marks made by the rat's incisors all along the edges. They need to get curious and go looking for the rest of the bones.

As the earth's biodiversity succumbs to climate and habitat destruction, there are people trying to preserve the diversity of rhododendrons for the world. These hardy explorers traverse mountain ridges and river valleys, picking their way through a still-surprising diversity of life and weather conditions, to discover wild rhodos and bring a few seeds back to raise, at home. They observe and document the diversity of life that exists where the seeds came from, and create similar diversity in urban gardens, so that one day when we stop razing the world's forests, perhaps some of this diversity will be retrievable. There are people doing similar preservation work for thousands of genuses and ecosystems all over the world. The reason the room full of grey-haired rhododendron enthusiasts is so eager to engage future generations is because they know the importance of the preservation of diversity for all species.

This is why exploration is important - because in exploring, we discover real diversity, on a scale that no textbook, biology professor, or nature documentary can show us. We know by the dirt under our fingernails that we are a part of this. In a time when the earth's biodiversity is severely threatened, we can immerse ourselves in it, engage with it and know it, literally from the ground up. Then when we get on a city bus we can look at the great diversity of people around us, the great diversity of ideas and emotions and physical attributes, smells and even microbiomes, and we can feel comfortable in knowing that these are important parts of our ecosystem, too.

No matter where we look in the world, diversity means innovation from diverse sources and evolution in many directions, and therefore more likelihood of success and survival, overall. Diversity matters in wilderness ecosystems as well as in our intestinal bacterial populations, boardrooms, classrooms, and human technological progress. Let's give our kids the opportunity to be and value and preserve that diversity.

Further Reading:
May 21 is World Cultural Diversity Day!
Rhododendron Species Foundation (largest collection in the world)
The Catalogue of Life!
Monoculture vs. Diversity in Farming

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