Mark V. Zieg HSPTS 104 "Camping & Orienteering" September 21, 1990As campers spend much of their time close to nature, they have a need and responsibility to understand its organic composition. Nature functions much like any other living organism; whether or not it contains any sort of "collective conscience" or "oversoul", is a matter of philosophical debate, but its organic nature is a verifiable fact. Obviously, trees act as living entities; they draw sustenance from the earth and sky, engaging in respiration and ingestion much like humans and other animals. However, they are but individual cells in a larger organism: the forest. Again, this is not semantics or sophistry, but documented fact. Each tree in a forest contributes to the cyclic "breathing," the exchange of oxygen for carbon dioxide, of the whole.
The relationship between individual plants and a slightly abstract "forest-entity" is made both more clear and more profound by the following comparison. Examine the following graph:
This chart, known as the Keeling Curve (Jonathan Weiner, The Next One Hundred Years), describes the amount of carbon passing through a human during one breath. A healthy human at rest goes through this curve approximately ten times per minute. The respiration of a healthy forest follows the exact same curve, at a rate of one breath per day. Even more enigmatic is the respiration, taken as a global average of the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, of the Earth: the entire planet follows Keeling's Curve at an accuracy of one part per million, exactly once per year. Your breathing, my breathing; the breathing of a forest on a warm summer's day; the breathing of our planet through a single solar year. All match in an awesome, and sometimes frightening, choreography. Our planet may not be aware, but it is most certainly alive.
Awesome, indeed, but why frightening? Because the original Charles Keeling, who first plotted that graph in the 1930's set up monitoring stations to track the planet's respiration. Exploratory science teams at both poles dug out miles of ice cores, containing atmospheric samples encased in tiny, imbedded bubbles, that when analyzed gave us charts of the planet's respiration over the past 100,000 years. And those charts were revealing. The planet's respiration remained remarkably stable for millennia, with the occasional jag during ice ages; stable, that is, until it entered into a steep rise during the birth of the Industrial Revolution. From the early 1800's onward, each breath of the Earth came a little bit sharper; each inhalation of carbon was followed by an exhalation that was just a little bit longer. This same condition, when applied to human respiration, is known as "gasping." The Earth is running short of breath, and we have no idea what would happen should it ever reach asphyxiation.
What is causing such suffocation? Smog, CFC's, industrial pollution; the usual stuff. But while those are all national or global problems, requiring large-scale action and solutions, there is a more important, more subtle cause at play: people are losing sight of their relationship with nature. They see a forest burned down to make room for a new housing development and say, "Aw, that's a damn shame." They might grieve for the woodchucks who lost their homes, for the exchange of a skyline for a sunset, but they miss the more important danger, that we are systematically cutting holes in a very large, very essential entity: the Earth. Every race we hunt to extermination, every biosphere we shut down to make room fro a new mini-mart, is cutting one more connection within the Earth's vital systems. "Folks are basically decent/conventional wisdom would say." (Neil Peart, Second Nature) As individuals, we might express care and concern for the environment; but as a race, we are acting like a cancer, spreading throughout our host planet, bringing death and contagion to the vital "tissues" that make up our home.
What can you do to help? I'm not asking you to abandon the use of Styrofoam, or write to your local congressmen. You hear enough of that already, and can judge for yourself how effective such campaigning has been. What I would like you to do, however, is think about the world we live on. When we go camping in a few weeks, take a look at the forest around you, and try to feel its breathing. Feel the soft carpet of grass and leaves beneath your feet, and recognize how fragile life really is. You don't have to wait until the trip, of course, nor do you need to stop with our return; the world is always there, surrounding you, embracing you. Just stop a minute and think about the grand organism we live on and are a part of, and perhaps you too will shed a tear for mother Earth.
Look the storm in the eye
To the sea and the sky
At the sight and sound
Look in--look out--look around--
Neil Peart, Force Ten