As my part of the country battens down the hatches as Sandy approaches (all the businesses in my town have boarded or taped their windows and sandbags line the sidewalk), it seems appropriate to write about nature.
The changing of the seasons is always a beautiful sight here in the northeast US. Early in the year, greens and yellows of spring welcome a new year of growth and productivity. The banner at the top of this blog is a picture taken in my parents’ garden of aconites, a flower that blooms in February when the rest of the world is still brown and gray. Now, in the throes of fall, the changing of the seasons is obvious in the reds, yellows, oranges, and browns of the changing leaves. When you see the cycle of the seasons, with trees budding and leafing out in the spring only to see the leaves turn color and drop 6-months later, it can seem a little wasteful. So much growth, only for the trees to be bare once more.
But what is waste, in nature?
One of the arguments frequently used against the eating of meat is the toll that animal waste takes on the environment. The run-off of nitrogen-laden (not to mention antibiotic-riddled) water from large-scale feedlots can wreak havoc on waterways and land (though it bears mentioning that run-off of nitrogenous fertilizer from crop land can be equally detrimental). In a non-industrial setting, however, is “waste” really such a problem?
On the contrary- in a more natural world “waste” is not a toxic hazard, but rather an important part of life. I snapped this picture at a farm near where I grew up. For as long as I can remember, this land has been “hayed” (in our area, farmers usually make 2, sometimes 3, cuttings of hay per year). In the last couple of years this land has changed hands, and now belongs to a vet with a great interest in grass-fed meats (as well as quality horses). The fields that have been farmed for vegetative crops will now be home to livestock… Just look at what their waste has done!
Look inside the fencing. See those dark green areas where the grass is particularly lush (and extra long)? THIS is what nature does with waste: nature turns waste into growth.
This land was productive as crop-land (you can see in front of the fenced land that part of this property is still in hay), but I suspect that with the return of animals to this land the grass will actually grow more, not less. Hayed land can be (and should be) replenished with potash (for potassium), lime (to maintain an appropriate pH), and nitrogen (in some bioavailable form to help plants grow) to compensate for the nutrients being continually removed by the cutting and bailing of hay. While many farmers slack on replacing the more expensive lime and potash, most put down nitrogen to help the grass “pop” so they get a good yield (biomass). Putting animals on the land reduces (or eliminates- once the soil is replete) the need for added fertilizers, as the grass is not being shipped off the property as hay, but is rather being cycled right there on the property into biomass (beef) and fertilizer.
What our modern, industrial world sees as waste is really part of a natural (not to mention efficient) cycle…
This isn’t just true with animals. I recently took a lightening visit to go hiking in the mountains of North Carolina. With a surprise 3-day weekend on my hands (my out-patient medicine preceptor was sitting for the boards), I couldn’t say no to a last minute invite. With views like this- I’m very glad I said yes!
It was almost the perfect time to visit, with leaves seemingly changing colors in front of our eyes. The palette of fall colors was stunning, and led to an enjoyable arts and crafts session of the patio of my friend’s cabin while enjoying a post-hike cider.
In the woods, these leaves lay where they fell (save the ones I carried back or the few the chipmunks and squirrels use to cushion their nests). Again, it can seem like a dreadful waste, until you realize that this process, which occurs every year, feeds the insects, grubs, fungi, and molds that turns these leaves into rich topsoil to encourage new growth.
One childhood family activity that I remember was raking leaves. I somewhat fear that the advent of leaf blowers has replaced good old-fashioned rakes (and more importantly, good old-fashioned leaf piles that were great for jumping in!), but whatever the mechanism of collection, leaves are generally not abided in our modern world. While I take no issue with clearing leaves, it pains me to see leaves bagged up and put out to be collected as “trash”. There is definitely an increase in people composting “yard waste”, but the name, again, shows how people see the world and nature- a progression, not a cycle.
A bit of google-mining suggests that the saying “Waste not, want not” can be attributed to Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), but it is nature that best embodies this philosophy.
(Stay safe out there- all my fellow northeasters in the path of Sandy!)