What is ‘Nature’?

This Easter I spent a fair bit of time in the “Great British countryside”. From the Pembrokeshire coast in South Wales, to Lizard Point in Cornwall. But whilst walking along picturesque coastal paths from one outcrop (Geology feild trip) to the next I had a fair amount of time to let my mind wander. I grew up in the countryside and for all my life I have considered everything about the countryside quintessentially British, unspoilt, and natural. Large swathes of land quite distinct from the bustle of the city, for which I believed it was our duty to protect and conserve.

Many people share this view, hence why there is always so much uproar when new airports, roads or fracking is proposed; those filthy politicians always trying to tarnish our countryside. Right?

I realised last week whilst gingerly stepping over cow pats and hopping over styles, that there is simply nothing remotely natural about natural England. Every aspect of our landscape has been crafted by us and our ancestors before us. No area of Britain has escaped. Heather shouldn’t grow on hill tops, grass shouldn’t carpet the landscape. Deformed bovines with swollen udders and emasculated mouflon (the ancestors of sheep apparently) with ridiculous white puffy hair shouldn’t even survive. Why is the national bird of India, the peacock undeniably more well-known and common in ‘wild’ Britain than (the formally) native Great Bustard. A What? Yes, precisely…

Our ancestors have been altering the Earth for at least 400,000 years, since controlled fire was first used to clear the Savannah. Although the biggest change to the ecology of the Earth in millions of years (since the last ice age) began with the emergence of agriculture in the Middle East 7000 years ago.

Before this time, almost the entirety of Britain – and Europe – was covered in dense forest, such as what survives today in a few pockets of Central Europe. Bears and wolves of course limited the populations of herbivores, which we know in Ireland at least contained Giant Elk, with antlers up to 12ft long. The story is similar elsewhere. Recent findings, and re-interpretations of the writings of some of the earliest explorers, indicate even the most virgin of virgin rainforest in the Amazon basin is an anthropological artefact.

Research by Clark Erickson of the University of Pennsylvania found tens of thousands of km of raised banks across the Bolivian Amazon that he believes were dug by humans. He claims, “By corrugating the flooded fields, farmers created ridges on which they could plant their crops, clear of the floodwaters and also of highland frosts, while also collecting water for irrigation in the dry season. It was a flatland equivalent of the ancient practice of terracing hillsides. The digging and earth-moving involved in creating these structures, is comparable to building the pyramids. They completely altered the landscape.”

Erickson also stumbled on something else: a vast system—estimated to cover 500 square km’s—of fish ponds and weirs, which captured the fish in the wet season, to eat during the dry. They were fish-farming on the edge of the rainforest. These fish ponds and raised fields stretching across the plains for thousands of square km’s could have sustained maybe a million people. Buried charcoal in the roads and mounds suggests that they were created up to 2,000 years ago.

An Early Spanish on expedition to Baures, Bolivia in 1617, described entering towns along causeways that could take four riders abreast. The records of the explorer Jesuit confirm this and suggest that some islands and causeways remained in use into the eighteenth century. It is likely that the once flourishing people of Baures were devastated by famine or disease, and subsequently nature has retaken what was once hers, capitalising on the rich soils left behind, resulting in the diverse biodiversity that we see today.
The point here is that what we consider to be nature is prejudiced by what we consider to be the norm. The amazon, it appears, is no more natural than Cambridge fens which were long ago drained to farmland. However, true nature doesn’t care for fences or boarders, and when given the chance it will take bounce back, although not always in the same way.

To illustrate my point, today is the 27th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, and this is what the abandoned town of Pripyat looks like now:

27 years on, now an eden for wildlife.

Chernobyl, 27 years on, now an eden for wildlife.
The exclusion zone (approx. 3000 km2) has paradoxically become a unique sanctuary for biodiversity. The evacuation put an end to industrialisation, deforestation, cultivation and other human intrusions, making it one of Ukraine’s environmentally cleanest regions – except of course for the radioactivity. Beavers, deer, wolves, lynx, as well as rare birds such as black storks and azure tits have all moved in. The rare white-tailed eagle now thrives in the area, and Europe’s last remaining mega-fauna, the Przewalski horse and the European Bison have been introduced successfully. Suprisingly studies on voles have shown that the still existing high levels of radioactivity do not have any genetic (or physical) abnormalities.
It appears ‘Nature’ is just somewhere where humans aren’t. Mega cities might be the green solution.

About theNatSci

Cambridge Natural Scientist.
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