Nature and the natural

Nature’s vagaries


I’m triggered into writing by a sentence from the latest Greenspirit Journal article by Stephanie Sorrell.  “Yet, although floods and deserts are an integral part of Nature’s rich variety…”  This sentence brought on sad memories.

I suspect that too much of what we see and call “nature” is not the kind of nature that we hold onto as being “Nature” or “natural.”  I remember feeling rather stupid the first time I realized that the occasional bits of grass emerging around the stones, the hundreds of gullies both shallow and deep, the thickness of prickly pear and jumping cactus [cholla]

was not really what I like to think of as natural.  No, these thousands of acres of southern Arizona landscape of sand, gravel and gullies are the result of overgrazing.

“While Mexican settlers did large-scale cattle-raising in the 1820s-30s, really massive cattle ranching only began with Anglo-American stock-raising after the Civil War — especially following the U.S. Army’s reduction of Apache raiding after 1870, and the arrival of the transcontinental railroad in Tucson in 1880. Trail drives from Sonora and Texas even earlier brought in thousands of head — Hooper and Hooker alone brought in four herds totaling 15,500 animals in 1872. Where there had been only 5,000 cattle in all of Arizona Territory in 1870, by 1880 the San Pedro Valley [south of Tucson] alone supported perhaps 8,000 head of cattle and 10-12,000 sheep. A ballyhoo campaign holding that “grass is gold” brought an inflow of capital and entrepreneurs. By 1890 one census showed over a million range cattle in Arizona as a whole, and the Southwestern Stockman of January 1891 conceded that “the malady of overcrowding is with us in an aggravated form….”

Ecological disaster followed: to quote further from Hastings and Turner’s account, “The summer rains of 1891 were well below normal. In the arid foresummer of 1892 stock began to die. The summer rains of 1892 again were scanty, and by the late spring of 1893 the losses were ‘staggering’ (Report of the Governor 1896:22). ‘Dead cattle lay everywhere. You could actually throw a rock from one carcass to another”…. Hastings and Turner then summarize the impact of the overgrazing on regional ecology: “Thousands of square miles of grassland, denuded of their cover, lay bared to the elements. The cropping unquestionably weakened the old plant communities, leaving them open to invasion; it unquestionably upset the balance between infiltration and runoff, in favor of the latter.” (page 41) [This essay is based almost entirely on the book by Hastings, James & Raymond Turner, 1965, The Changing Mile: An Ecological Study of Vegetation Change with Time in the Lower Mile of an Arid and Semiarid Region. University of Arizona Press]

Verified by the quote above, we see that thousands upon thousands of cattle and sheep soon munched their way through the rich carpet – pulling and scraping even the roots when starvation threatened.  When the rainfall [which often comes in thunderstorms and fierce downpours]  finally arrived miles and miles of weakened root systems washed away never to return in their former splendor.  Yes, as I walk there I do find beauty; I admire the birds, especially the cactus wren chattering loudly at me or maybe an imagined predator. Somehow, however, the cascades of sandy, muddy water dredging the gullies ever deeper is not an example of Nature’s “vagaries.”

This poem captures the essence of my feelings which I share with the author: