Students take a "coral quiz", San Salvador, Bahamas.
In reading A Neotropical Companion I was consistently amazed by the diversity of the region, given the comparatively poor quality of soil. Of course from my perspective as a human and an American I suppose my view of what is good soil is a little skewed; basically if one canÕt grow crops on it, its not good soil. That being said, I still would consider the rainforest soil to be poor. It is notoriously poor at holding nutrients due largely to the tremendous amount of precipitation (leaching and the cation bonding sites being taken up by H+ ions). Yet in spite of this, the rainforest is one of the most diverse and lush ecosystems in the world (second perhaps to coral reefs).
I would imagine that as I look at the lush green of the forest from the understory, I would be impressed at how these plants can not only survive but thrive in what can almost be called a nutrient desert.
The previous statement may have been a bit over zealous, there are nutrients available in the rainforest, one need only look down and see all of the leaf litter. A more apt comparison would be the ocean; ÒWater, water everywhere, but not a drop to drinkÓ or in this case nutrients everywhere but you have to be quick to get them. All of the plants have to be so specialized in order to survive, and yet they are so prolific and diverse. I look around and see the huge trees laden with vine and mosses, and realize that this is probably the only place where these plants can survive. The majority of plants in the forest are specialized for the fixation of nutrients, there are even some trees that create chambers at their base to catch their own leaves so that they can recapture their nutrients. The rainforest might be the best example of nutrient cycling in the world. The leaves fall, decay, are taken up by the tree from whence they came, and are used to create (among other things) more leaves. As I look around it try to envision the flow of energy, they appear to be ring flowing from roots to canopy and back again. This is so elegant and beautiful in its efficiency, the forest is sustained by itself. However, this to me creates a paradox. How could the forest be established under this condition. Could this actually be a working example of relay floristic theory?
One of my greatest questions about the rainforest is how did it get there? I am not entirely ignorant on this subject, I just canÕt quite grasp the complexity. As mentioned before, the rainforest is a very self reliant ecosystem that from what I have read is built on a complex network of symbiosis, competition and niches. So my question is how does something like this develop on its own? It was probably a long and slow process that took thousands or even millions of years. What this means for us today, is how do we bring the forest back after we have cut it down, will it recolonize on its own, will it ever be the same?
IÕve taken ecology classes, so I am familiar with the idea of recolonization; I know that it is a gradual process of plants colonizing an area, going through a disturbance and being replaced by a different species (or a least this is the theory that I prescribe to). With this in mind, a forest will eventually exist again in the cleared area, however will it be the same as the one before it? My answer would be no. With so many chance events involved in colonization, it is unlikely that the forest will be the same. In fact, there is no guarantee that it will ever return to the same kind of ecosystem. Deforestation alters a landscape due to erosion and different plant life. There was even I section (or was it from another class) that discussed how the regions of deforestation experience decreased precipitation do to the loss of evapotranspiration. Apparently much like the nutrients, much of the moisture in the rainforest is recycled in a tight loop. This could be one of the best reasons I have heard for protecting these forests, because if this information is correct, when rainforest is gone then itÕs gone.
Of course when ever ecology is discussed I can help but think about the myth of the pristine. As I stand in the natural wonder that is the forest, I stop and feel a profound sense of spirituality a kin to the John Muir school of thought. Then I look down at the path, and around at my classmates and realize there is no such thing as a pristine wilderness, or if there is, this isnÕt it. The idea of pristine is based on the Christian notion that humans are not a part of nature and that therefore their effect is not natural. Based on everything we know however, humans are a part of nature, fundamentally we are no different that the ants crawling across our path or the chattering monkeys in the canopy above. All places have been touched by mankind, and who are we to say if it is for good or for bad. A pasture is a human altered landscape, but so too is the nature preserve that it surrounds. The key difference between ourselves and the ants and monkeys of the world is our potential, we have a much greater potential to alter the world around us, this is where we must be more responsible and conscientious. In a way, our awe of nature is based on the idea of not belonging in it, and idea that I donÕt prescribe to.
I picture myself looking around me, taking a deep breath and smiling. Like it or not, we live in the natural world, nature is our home. There are many ways to approach environmentalism, the one that I feel makes the most sense is to recognize nature for what it is, our home. A person would not pile garbage in the corner of their house, or leave the walls to rot, but we are doing this to our greatest home, the earth. A person must take care of their home, and so we must take care of the environment.
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