Ripples 4-25-14

Reflections on Earth Day

Another Earth Day has come and gone.  There were many associated activities especially aimed at raising awareness about the environment.  And the environment, or the living things in it, go on coping as best they can with whatever is happening now.  Earth Day, although a time to celebrate the Earth and nature, is also a great time to pause and contemplate the realities of our world.

Coincidentally, the day before Earth Day was the birthday of John Muir, who died 100 years ago.  He was a Scottish immigrant who spent his boyhood in Wisconsin, attending UW-Madison when it was first founded, and from there went on to explore and write about nature, our connections to it, and our need to care for it.  He is considered the father of our National Parks and was founder of the Sierra Club.  He did much to try to influence people to consider the welfare of the land, and his thoughts still influence us.

Most of the surface of the planet has been altered by people, physically, chemically, or biologically.  That’s not to judge whether it’s good or bad: it’s just the way it is.  We didn’t realize it in the past partly because we didn’t have the means to measure things as accurately as we can now, or we just weren’t looking.  For example, we didn’t realize that most of the living things on earth live in the soil, not on the surface where we can see them.  And most of those are too tiny to see with the naked eye.  What’s the most abundant animal on earth?  A species of nematode, a tiny wormlike creature.  What’s the most abundant plant?  A microscopic algae found suspended in the ocean’s waters.  If they are so abundant they must be incredibly important, yet most of us know nothing about them.  Or how what we do affects them- but what affects them may have a huge impact on our lives in the future.

When it comes to the Earth, where should we invest our precious time and resources?  From the perspective of a wildlife preserve in Wisconsin, here’s what we would suggest:


  • Learn about the natural world of which we are an important part.  Seek the truth about how nature works, and how we interact with it.  We have probably just scratched the surface, even after thousands of years of study, as to how nature operates.
  • Use what we have learned to make good decisions.  Everything we do has an impact on something else, and that means there are few or no easy answers to complicated issues.  To be sustainable in the long term, our decisions must consider equally the well-being of businesses that drive the economy, the needs of people, and the integrity of our ecosystems.  If we focus on only one of those areas, we won’t achieve the balance needed to make things work in the long term- we’ll just keep shifting our focus back and forth as problems arise.  Looking for win-win scenarios builds relationships between groups.
  • Based on the above, look for opportunities to make things better.  A beach clean-up makes the shoreline more attractive and encourages people to appreciate Lake Michigan, spend time enjoying the shore, and patronize businesses nearby.  Removing damaging invasive plants from parks and replacing them with native species approves the appearance of a public greenspace for the community and restores needed habitat for birds and other wildlife, and more attractive to people.  Finding ways to generate and use energy more wisely to save the land, water, and air and avoid tremendous future costs.  Finding ways to make and use materials, and re-use them without degrading the land.  Recognize land that is particularly valuable for wildlife, like the “bird factories” of northern Wisconsin including our area, and using them wisely so that species aren’t lost.  We believe these actions are all possible, and will continue to encourage people to think about them.

Last week during a visit of three and four-year-olds and their parents, we witnessed our pair of ospreys chasing a pair of bald eagles away from their nesting area.  When Woodland Dunes was founded, both ospreys and eagles were rare around here, and the populations of both species have recovered because people understood and adapted their behavior in consideration of them.  Right now the ospreys are incubating eggs- the female doing the sitting and the male bringing in fish.  One wonders what she thinks about during all those hours atop a pole, looking out over the marsh night and day for the next six weeks or so.  We used to think that animals didn’t have the capability for much thought, but research seems to be indicating that their capacity is greater than many expected.  Likewise we may underestimate our own capacity  to be effective and positive forces in the natural world.

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