Note from the Author
Hey there all you environmental enthusiasts! May has come and gone and it marks the beginning of getting back out in the prairie for restoration activities. Thinking on my own growth as a volunteer with my local communities got me thinking a bit about environmental stewardship, which ended up being the topic for this month's Human Nature. Funny how that works out!
Prairies are honestly a very interesting ecosystem to think about. They don't happen on their own, which was a bit baffling to Europeans who initially came over to North America. They would document the landscape without realizing for quite some time that the reason prairies exist is because of human environmental management. Indigenous tribes would regularly burn small portions of the land in a rotation to control wildlife patterns and ensure they had resources over the course of years. Doing their best not to take more than needed to allow the environment to recover and allow themselves to stick around known areas for long periods of time.
I like thinking back on that relationship with the world. Understanding how the Earth works and working within and alongside those systems to ensure long term stability. Since the agricultural and industrial revolutions, humanity has moved farther away from that mentality. Helping out on the prairie is my own little glimpse into the kind of understanding we needed to survive prior to bending the land to our will.
I digress, though. You can read more about these thoughts in this month's Human Nature if that piques your interest! In the meantime, I hope your May was a fruitful one and wish you the best going into June :)
~ And, as always, don’t forget to keep wondering ~
New from Prismatic Planet!
A heart upon sleeves
Along life bearing stems, snug
Among garden leaves
Petal singed of time
Ghostly white 'long waves of green
Rests its sun-kissed sheets
Winter meets the spring
A façade of powdered fluff
Bluff of snowy leaves
Reaching to the sun
Drenched in timeless light, blink of
The universe eye
Picture, if you will, yourself walking through a forest. What do you see? This might differ a bit from person to person depending on the types of forest they're familiar with, but I can safely assume you've imagined a great number of trees. Lots of different kinds of trees. And maybe you can envision what the ground looks like, covered from horizon to horizon in smaller shrubs and herbs. You can likely hear the calls of birds, a few you recognize and many you don't. Not to mention all of the animals running around, hiding in canopies, and living their lives.
If this is what you're picturing, what you're piecing together in your mind is something close to a healthy ecosystem. Lots of different life existing alongside one another, making the most of the time they all have. This consideration for "lots of different" life has a name in ecology, and that name is biodiversity. It's one of those things that can very easily be taken for granted, especially when humans have such a hard time identifying all of the different kinds of life out there. It's easy for us to think that we can "just plant any tree here" without understanding what else is around that would either make its life harder, easier, or even possible at all.
Biodiversity is the gateway to understanding just how intricate a web our Earth systems are. That we have such a palette of life, but it all manages to live alongside each other without becoming a detriment to itself and others. So let's take a look at this key topic in ecology and find out just how important it is to how our planet functions.
I started volunteering with my local arboretum over 2 years ago after wanting to take a more active role in my understanding of our home. I won't reminisce about this since I've done that at length in my first Human Nature blog post, but this volunteering was also my first foray into environmental stewardship. That is to say, the kind of volunteering I was doing (and still do) revolved around learning about plants and animals so I can actively participate in caring for the environment. This involves work like seed collection, seed propagation, monitoring, and aggressive species removal.
In my case, I have an intrinsic motivation to understand the environment around me. I like knowing about plants and animals that I see because it makes me feel more like a part of this world rather than an observer. Knowing what something is, when it's active, and what it can be used for is a fun skill to have and work on. While my immediate friends and family aren't as interested in the topic as me, it does occasionally provide some insight or a fun fact for them to take with them.
Though, arguably, knowing what something is used for isn't actively helpful to me in modern life. I will not likely need to know medicinal or crafting properties of plants to make it through my life because I can depend on a society of people where someone else is using that knowledge to make things for me. What is helpful, however, is looking past the individual value of something and knowing how it interacts with other plants and animals in its local environment. These properties of life are still important, in my opinion, for everyone to have some knowledge of. If we see that an environment degrades so much that an entire species is suddenly gone, knowing how that species fit into the system lets us know what will be impacted next and how that could impact the larger system. When enough of these larger systems ripple into each other, they eventually hit humanity, so having a base knowledge of this interconnectedness keeps us, at a minimum, aware of when things are going to change and why.
It's here that I find value in my environmental stewardship. I build an appreciation for the complex connectivity of everything on Earth. I'll never know it all, but by actively working to maintain and restore natural areas, I get to learn about my local community. Not just the human one, but the one of all living and non-living things.
Let's dive in.
May Eco News
A recent study on a species of ant that serves as a host for a tapeworm parasite shows that infected ants tend to have longer lifespans than typical worker ants, occasionally outliving the queen of the colony. Observing the ant's behavior doesn't show any different in the infected ant's activity, but the other ants in the colony are influenced by the ant's infection, causing them to take care of that infected ant, leading to longer life. Whether this is a social safety net to care for infected ants or some other cause is yet to be known, but ant colonies never cease to surprise those who look into their intricacies!
On the coattails of the volcanic eruption in Iceland, we're reminded of the devastation volcanoes near civilization can cause this month in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mount Nyiragongo erupted this month with a rare side effect of being situated over a lake called a limnic eruption. In addition to lava flows, suffocating gas will leak out of the volcano, nigh invisible in these conditions. While casualties have been limited, it's a reminder of not only the awe inspired from the Iceland eruption, but the devastation these phenomena can potentially cause without early warning systems.
As the climate warms, northern latitude forests are becoming more susceptible to “zombie” or "overwinter" fires, which can lie in smoldering dormancy in the soil layer beneath snow and rain cover. These fire stay in an "energy-saver" mode until conditions above ground are favorable and re-emerge. This isn't to say fires are becoming sentient or anything, just that the conditions to recede into dry pockets of soil to resurface after snow melt are becoming a much more frequent phenomenon.
In "plastics are everywhere" news, recent observations have found that plastics are taking over the world-famous biodiversity haven of the Galapagos Islands. While not all individual species analyzed in the study had plastics in their system, every species tested did have individuals with plastics in there system, showing the vast reach of plastics being carried to the islands on ocean currents.
As AI improves, more smartphone apps are providing an accessible means for people to quickly identify plants around them out in the wild. Researchers at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research looked at the data captured from users of the app Flora Incognita and found that it helped determine macroecological changes in European environments just as well as their own historic records. While this data was much more useful in areas where people are more abundant (still relying on professional field data for rarer, isolated plants), this shows how helpful both AI image recognition and citizen science participation can help inform science!
Thank you for checking out the Prismatic Planet newsletter! For more environmental thoughts and stories, be sure to check out the Prismatic Planet website.
~ And, as always, don’t forget to keep wondering ~