Laws of Nature
This year I have a large compost pile. My wonderful science-teacher daughter gave me a 20 inch long compost pile thermometer to keep track of what is going on in there. There is lots of advice for making compost on the package. A little like a recipe they list what activities happen at different temperatures. Up to 100°, not much is happening. If it was once hotter, it’s time to turn the pile. 100° to 130° the microorganisms are doing well but insects and worms will leave or die. 130° to 160° Things are going well and weed seeds are being composted. Above 160° and you risk starting a fire and killing the microbes.
A compost pile is amazing in that it takes a relatively simple set of input material and turns it into billions of microbes and plant-ready nutrients. But this abundance comes with a caution. You can overdo it and cause a small-scale extinction event. In Farmers of Forty Centuries, by F. H. King, you can learn how people have been leveraging nature to create compost for thousands of years. Indeed throughout history people have leveraged knowledge of nature to their advantage. The wheel, fire, the Pythagorean Theorem (foundation of trigonometry), steel, atomic energy…are all based on the laws of nature. They usually have mathematical foundations. They also usually can be used to create beneficial or harmful outcomes. Ironically the laws of nature don’t dictate what is good or bad, what is within the law, or what is outlawed. Only human laws do that. Nature cannot be disobeyed. Sadly, it can be ignored.
In his book on the human race, Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari, notes that one of the most powerful inventions shaping the history of mankind is fiction. A common belief in a human-based fiction makes money (an otherwise useless and inedible commodity), valuable. Belief in country unites tribes and towns of people who otherwise don’t know each other into powerful forces who build cities and wage wars. Belief in its laws creates the character of a society.
In the same book, Harari cites the admission of ignorance as the foundation of science: “Modern science is based on the Latin injunction ignoramus – ‘we do not know’. It assumes that we don’t know everything. Even more critically, it accepts that the things that we think we know could be proven wrong as we gain more knowledge. No concept, idea or theory is sacred and beyond challenge.” Because it allows us to ever more closely identify the laws of nature, science has proven to be a powerful tool.
So here we have two sets of laws, one we just made up and the other we discovered by admitting ignorance. You may think by now that I have drifted a long way from compost. But I’m just getting back to that. Compost is a natural product in cycles of life and death. Some of the most perfect compost is found under deciduous trees because their leaves drop just in time to be soaked in moisture during the winter. They mold with fungus which in turn is digested by microbes, insects and worms to fertilize the trees again in the spring. By looking at what makes soil rich we can learn a lot about the laws of nature that are not defined exactly by mathematics.
The hallmark of good soil is an abundance of life. A key indicator is carbon. We are after all carbon-based life forms. The more roots, bugs, humus and other forms of organic carbon that are in the soil the more nutrients, more fertility and more crop yield will result. A part of that abundance is diversity. The more different kinds of organisms are in the soil, the healthier it is. Some of those organisms are weeds. Some of the weeds compete with crops for light and nutrients. Some organisms are pests. But don’t be too quick to say some organisms are bad and some are good.
Weeds and pests can tell you a lot about your soil and your management. The arc of evolution bends toward abundance. What we are seeing is that balance and abundance are the same. If elk are too abundant they eat down the brush along creeks. That makes the water too warm for fish. If wolves are too abundant, the brush and fish thrive but the wolves begin to starve because there are not enough elk. Somewhere in between there are the most elk, the most wolves, the most brush and the most fish that the environment can sustain. That is the natural balance.
Somewhere in between there are also the most people. Humans dominate the environment. Nature does not exist outside of us. We are nature. In the April edition of the North Columbia Monthly I wrote about mother trees. Trees of different species share water and nutrients directly with each other and with their offspring. Plants communicate with chemical signals to each other about pest infestations and drought. None of them stand alone outside of the web of life. Each participates according to its own nature and identity. Each has a role to play and each role is important in its own way.
When the environment changes due to fire, cold, drought, landslides, plowing, pesticides, overgrazing, etc. some organisms die back or become extinct, others that played minor roles before, emerge as dominant. Nature goes on building back to more diversity and abundance. People can help that process. They can add compost for example. We see that as good because it benefits us. Nature doesn’t care. But we can learn a lot from nature.
This is a time of turmoil. There is a pandemic disease and political unrest. Human laws are changing and we can believe in better ones. Agricultural practices are changing and we can discover better ones. Recently we have learned a lot about the life and world view of Congressman John Lewis. His philosophy of non-violence in many ways mimics the laws of nature. Although people hated and attacked him, he did not hate and attack them back. He did not advocate their elimination. He didn’t even advocate changing the name of the Edmund Pettis Bridge. It is part of the environment, part of history. What he did advocate was inclusion of all people, votes for all people and malice toward none.
The characteristics that make a biome strong are diversity, abundance, reciprocal cooperation and communication. Full participation with a balance of power between living members of the biological community makes for a healthy growing ecology. Those are the laws of nature. Those laws don’t change even though organisms have changed over eons. Survival of the fittest does not mean killing off all the competition. It means supporting what each being has to offer.
We are in a time of crisis. How we will survive will be different than how we live now. We have tools in fiction and ignorance that can help or hinder us. The laws of nature favor abundant life. Will we?