Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Brief: mendings & metaphors

Hedden Park in Morris County, New Jersey consists of 389 acres of forest—predominately maple, beech, and witch hazel. Many years ago, during my awkward youth, it was a favorite after-school wandering place; in my awkward adulthood I came to frequent Hidden Valley.

These woods took a savage pounding when Hurricane Sandy rolled through in 2012. During my first visit home after the storm, the trunks fallen over the trails and gaping holes in the canopy were disheartening sights indeed. The most concentrated area of devastation lay on a hillside where every standing tree within an area of about half an acre was knocked over. Looking at it though an elevated distance (it lies in a depression within sight of a trail) was like looking out over the cusp of an impact crater. Seeing into the clearing from the path was (and still is) difficult—the dense shrubs and creepers prevent walkers from getting close unless they're prepared to crawl through the dirt and suffer the briers. All that's visible is the evidence of a rupture in the treescape.

Four days ago, on a different trail than I usually take, I followed a line of flattened weeds up the hill and found myself inside the hollow.

Here's what it looks like now: ecological succession at work.

I'm certain this image would deliver a greater impact with a "before" picture preceding it. We'll just steal one from a (serendipitously relevant) Atlas Obscura article to get an idea of what this scene would have looked like in October 2012.

In conversation I heard myself likening the scene to scab tissue forming over a wound—and immediately regretted it.

Why? It was a luculent (if obvious) metaphor. But that's just it.

One should take care when invoking metaphor. In substituting the obscurities of an unfamiliar process with well-understood events from common experience, we can grasp or convey the gist of recondite entities or events without committing the proverbial ten thousand hours to investigating them. We mustn't mistake the gist of something for knowledge of it; when we rely on metaphor we can only grasp the object under consideration in light of its similarities to some other entity. Where the facts diverge, our knowledge falters—often without our realizing it.

The principal deficiency of the "scab" metaphor is simply this: an animal is generated by model, and an ecological community is formed by contingency—or, if you like, by accident.

When one of our toenails gets ripped off (as sometimes happens), it regenerates over time. After the injured digit heals, its new envelope of alpha-keratin plating probably won't act much differently than the one it replaced. With every cell in the body carrying out the instructions from a common set of nucleotide blueprints, there's little chance that something else—hair, a new eye, or a partial lip—will grow out of one's big toe in lieu of a nail.

Brute causality—the sole arbitrator and architect of open systems of massed organisms vying for subsistence and propagation—gives no such assurances. A destabilizing event (such as a tree-felling hurricane) does not open a wound to be healed over, but presents an opportunity to be exploited. If conditions in the wider environment differ from those which prevailed at the inauguration of a lately fallen tract of forest, the woods which succeed the interregnal meadow may take on a different character. The number of factors to consider is beyond numbering, but the most obvious possibility involves invasive species. A suddenly level field may provide them a vector for penetrating a new locale and consolidating their presence in a region.

Incidentally, the Atlas Obscura article I found while looking for images of fallen trees offers richer examples of this than my own observations can supply. I apologize in advance for the obtrusive bracketed notes.
When [New Orleans biologist Jerome Howard] started looking at aerial maps of the area [the Bayou Sauvage refuge, post-Katrina], he realized why the death rate had been so high: forest managers had leveed the area, to create marsh habitat for migrating birds. When the storm hit, salt water rushed in and was trapped until the refuge could pump it out. The trees were sitting with their trunks soaking in salt water. That’s what killed them and made room for the more resilient Chinese tallow trees to take over. 
Howard is proposing to resurvey the area, 10 years after he first returned to the forest, to document the patterns of tree growth. Perhaps he’ll be surprised, like the Harvard Forest scientists [mentioned earlier in the article], to find that the opportunistic tallow trees have not done as well as he thought they might. 
But the Harvard Forest also has some advantages——the [experimentally] simulated storm happened to a relatively small part of a generally healthy forest. In forests that are already more closely managed by humans, it can be hard not to intervene. 
In New York, for instance, Superstorm Sandy felled hundreds of trees in Prospect Park, the only forest left in thickly populated Brooklyn. In the past four years, goutweed and English ivy, invasive plants that were already a problem in the park, have rushed into newly open areas and taken over. ... 
Once you’ve started to interfere with a forest, whether by building a city around it or a levee in the middle of it, it’s no longer so good at dealing with a devastating event like a hurricane on its own.
I intend to abstain from ecological doomsaying and finger-wagging for today, so we'll leave Ms. Laskow's conclusion where it lies. It's worth remembering, though, that while a human being would be aghast to peel off a bandage and discover a new sphincter under a cracking scab, this sort of thing happens all the time across the "body" of an ecological community. That's just how nature works: mindlessly scourging its own constitution with uncomfortable, jarring, even catastrophic changes, forever and always. There's no reason to panic—unless, of course, humanity persists in incrementally positioning itself to be sloughed off during the next molt. Nothing on this planet is essential; nothing here exists but precariously. (Whoops, there I go.)

This is good a time as any for a reminder that the bushy green presence we call "nature" ought to be conceived as a continuous, multivariate, non-repeating process rather than as an area or a static category of things. Expedients to understanding biotic pluralities that would abstract their vital quiddities from them are best left unused—and anthopocentric metaphors are especially deserving of consignment to the compost heap.

At any rate, I look forward to seeing what Sandy's hollow looks like another six years from now.

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