I go to the desert hoping the desert will wreak changes in me, which is more than one should ever ask of a landscape. I want the wind to peel me slowly, layer by layer and imperceptibly, until my unnecessary armor is stripped clean.
It never happens. Not that way.
I sit and wait for the change to come. I long for it. I imagine the change coming as slight and as easy as a snakeskin shed well, and anticipate the clearing of vision that comes from losing the old, used-up lenses. And I am disappointed, and restless, and then when the change comes it is less like the abrasion of thin layers and more like the cracking of a walnut. I blink hard at the new, intimidating glare.
The desert has been working on me the whole time. It is a matter of thresholds. At some point the pressure becomes too great. Running this morning, the fence lizards that lined my path saw me coming from some yards away, and yet they did not retreat stealthily, methodically. Instead they froze in place until the terror I instilled in them became too great. A trigger reached when the clomping of my clumsy feet became too much to bear, they exploded one by one into noisy flight.
This is the geometry of change in the natural world. Continuous change is uncommon, and where found it is usually part of a cycle, the increase by small increments of morning air temperature, the upward march of tides. The sun will set and the air cool, and the tides will recede, and even with those familiar examples the continuity of the change vanishes if you change the scale in which you examine them. Each tide cycle is thousands of crashing waves, each wave a torrent of turbulent collisions never to be exactly duplicated. Each degree of warming is a chaos of unpredictable breezes, air temperature rising not at all for minutes and then by jumps as a warm wind flutters over the landscape, and temperature itself a measure of the speed of random collisions of air molecules.
The San Andreas Fault slips at about an inch and a third each year across California, but some decades it moves hardly at all and then it jumps 30 feet in a second.
I am tempted sometimes to parochialize, to claim that living in the arid West with its lower biomass tonnage per acre promotes a more visceral awareness of the true nature of change. Humid environments seem more insulated against change. Growing up back East one is more tempted to believe in things such as the “Balance of Nature.” Even the ugliest scar on the land is soon cloaked by ailanthus trees. The non-botanist is tempted to take that as healing. The western landscape suffers visible change from cattle, from tire tracks, from campfires and rainstorms. Those agents of change work in the humid world as well, but their immediate effects are subtler and thus harder to discern.
The sheer fecundity of the world conceals its vulnerability to change.
Creationists seeking to argue against evolution often liken the evolution of complex organisms by natural selection to the building of a DC-10 by a hurricane blowing through a junkyard. Their conclusion? Since such an event is staggeringly unlikely, a special sentient hurricane must have built the plane deliberately. But grant a few quintillion junkyards and continuous hurricanes, and further grant the nuts and bolts and sheet metal the ability to make copies of themselves if they find themselves blown into configurations that cannot be easily blown apart by the next hurricane, and give this whole process a couple of billion years to ferment, and the evolution of machinery as complex as airplanes is almost certain. Though you might not get a DC-10, exactly.
(Come to think of it, that is how DC-10s made their appearance. Two monkeys, given 25 million years, produced not just the Shakespeare folios but every other word ever written in any language. They didn’t need typewriters to do so, but they invented them anyway. Of course they didn’t set out with that in mind.)
With a wet rock bathed in light and hospitable to the rise of complex, mutable life, it was near inevitable that complex networks of such organisms would arise, each organism trying to survive, new properties of the system emerging with each new level of complexity.
But we mistake this complexity for law.
A farmer razes a forest, plants a crop, plants another, grows old and dies. Ragweed grows up in the furrowed earth, and sumac, and silver maple. In a generation the land is forest again. We once watched that process and ascribed it to an imperative we thought the land possessed. The forest was called a climax community, as though the land had a sexual urge to grow wood. But with each razing and re-growth the character of that forest changes. It is a matter of chance what manner of tree grows in the new-bare earth, a stochastic result of which seeds first lay successful claim to the vacant territory. Sometimes no forest at all grows when the plowing ends.
Climax communities were so described because they appeared stable. The living world tends toward stability, it was thought. When there is a long enough gap between catastrophes, the land cycles through a number of unstable states and reaches a stable one. It is a stable state because it lasts longer than the unstable states. On Cima Dome this week I expect to kick a number of rocks down talus slopes, most of them unintentionally. Dislodged from its place, where it might have been content to rest for centuries, each kicked stone will touch the earth in a dozen spots, none of them sufficient to hold it, until it finds a ledge or an obstructing rock or shrub to halt its downward progress, and there it will stop, at least for a time. Would we then say that tumbling rocks seek out stable states on the hillside?
Stable states last longer. This is not an insight into the fractal geometry of the world: it is a tautology.
There is no balance of nature. Or if there is, it is the balance of a teetering rock on a pedestal stable enough to hold it for the moment.
The living earth renews itself after each disaster only in the sense that what survives the disaster may, with luck, bear progeny better suited to disastrous times. Odds are those progeny will not be to our liking. It is the weeds and plagues and pests, the irruptive big-litter breeders, that repopulate the disaster areas.
North America was once trampled by huge herds of huge animals. Mammoths and mastodons, bears the size of Ford Excursions, ground sloths and camels and horses, vultures with 17-foot wingspans. There are paleontologists who hold that most of these went extinct due to hunting pressure from humans, the ancestors of present-day Native Americans. (This is not a popular notion among some, including some present day Native Americans, who feel it smacks of blame. As for me, when considering that some people armed only with sharpened stones may have killed off the short-faced bears, I can summon no emotion other than reverent awe.)
Population biologists have calculated that human hunters need have killed only a very small percentage of the North American megafaunal population each year, a few baby mammoths here and a pesky short-faced bear there, to cause a devastating ecosystem collapse in short order. When the large animals died out, everything that depended on them for food, for seed dispersal or for habitat, to compete with their enemies and rivals… all those were pushed to the brink. And change almost certainly happened abruptly, with all seeming more or less well until it suddenly all fell apart.
There are a lot more of us now, with technology far more destructive than Clovis points. We plow much of the land and trawl most of the shallow sea. We change the atmosphere, the temperature, the color of sunlight. More and more of the produce of the earth is diverted to our mouths. The balancing rock may be large, its pedestal broad, we seeming but flies alighting on it, but there will be a time when that rock reaches a threshold and falls, and we may not see it coming.
And all of our environmentalist culture is predicated on the notion that change is continuous. The sustainability ethic that environmentalists endorse is based on the assumption that that rock, seeing itself growing too light on one side, will smile indulgently at us flies and shift its weight so that we might carry on in comfort.