Fitting into nature–or not

The role of this website is to interpret emergy science and ideas surrounding descent for a broader audience.  At the Emergy conference this week, the increasing problem of environmental pollution and human waste was a recurring theme, as was the difficulty of environmental stewardship and low-energy living while nested within an industrial society at the larger scale. With thoughts from the prior post about the primary importance of developing a balance between nature and society, my immediate thoughts turn to what we can do personally.

bigpinestudyI just spent a month rehabilitating HT Odum’s 60-year old house near the University of Florida campus in Gainesville, Florida. While working with my hands, I had lots of time to watch the setting and to think about the local microcosm. Odum lived what he believed as an ecologist, and the setting of the home reflects his long-time stewardship of the land, and his personal efforts to live in balance with nature, even while nested within an industrial system at the larger scale that is oppositional to these efforts. How can we personally steward our small corner of the earth, in opposition to the last fumes of destructive industrial society?

When Odum came to the University of Florida in 1970, he bought a house that was less than a mile from campus, so that he would be able to walk or bike to campus. He chose a property that had a small sinkhole pond on it, shared by three other houses. Freeze’s pond was notable for having been the swim team’s practice swimming hole at University of Florida until the 1920s.

Stewardship of nature, and adaptations for a lower energy world

Over the years, Odum allowed the grassy front lawn to shrink, by planting successive layers of sapling trees snagged during various field trips to wetlands, woods, and other ecosystems. It was not unusual to come home from these expeditions with a small tree unceremoniously stuck in a bucket in the back seat of the car. He planted hardwoods in the front yard, and cypress in the back, near the sinkhole pond.  Sinkholes are natural depressions in the earth caused by erosion of limestone by the power of water. In north-central Florida, sinkholes fill with water, and eventually create cypress domes, with older trees in the center and young trees on the perimeter. Odum hastened the process on this pond, by planting various varieties of his beloved cypress along its edges. Eventually peat will build up in the middle of the sinkhole, and cypress take root there. In nature, the cypress domes aid in ground water recharge, evapotranspiration, and water purification. Since most virgin cypress in the southeast were harvested for lumber in the 19th and 20th century, replanting is needed.  In central Florida, more sinkholes are appearing as aquifers near Tampa and Orlando are drawn down, and homeowners are buying sinkhole insurance. Do the cypress also help to stabilize this sinkhole?

PondCypressallgrownupFifty years later, this small lot on a pond hosts an amazing diversity of plants and animals, considering that it is in the middle of a small city. Over time, the entire yard has reverted back to nature, with the original traditional lawn in the front yard fading away and replaced by leaf litter. The trees are huge, and they offer good shade for the house in the summer, requiring less air conditioning. The leaves and pine needles have accumulated and composted on soil on the ground for 60 years, creating a rich, fertile organic loam. Native species and invasives have self-organized the land in response to the energy inputs. Odum knew that invasives served a role in maximizing empower, and for the most part, let them self-organize, in their role in early succession in some of the sunny open areas on the lot. If one invasive seemed especially aggressive or dominant, he would trim the shrubs back by hand to let some of the slower-growing native species have more of a chance. But for the most part, he knew that while the fast-growing invasive chinaberry, camphor, or air potato, for example, might prosper for a while in forest openings with accessible sunlight, eventually the large trees’ shade would crowd them out or control their growth, and the system would optimize for the energy that was available. The invasives are particularly aggressive at one end of the property where someone attempted a small vegetable garden many years ago. The garden failed, as there was not enough solar energy to grow vegetables. Since the air potatoes persist there, in the opening, perhaps it is time to revisit the vegetable garden, this time ensuring enough light energy reaches it.

Pulsing water cycles and aquifers
hooded mergansers
hooded mergansers

The sinkhole pond is generally very stable, with water levels on the pond fluctuating up and down over the years, depending on the rainfall. One of the neighbors used to pump water from the pond to water his lawn, which tended to draw down the level. Several years ago there was a long drought in north central Florida, and the pond went completely dry, for over a year. I could walk across it, and grasses began to grow on it.  The cycle passed, and this year has been very rainy. The pond is full again, and the pulse has resulted in a pulse of new life in the pond. Owls hoot at night. Cardinals act as nature’s roosters, as the first birds to sing in the morning, followed by many others. The frogs are back, full force, brought in, perhaps, as eggs on the legs of visiting water birds. Apparently, nature abhors a vacuum. The sound of frogs from the pond is deafening in the spring and summer. Pileated woodpeckers make frequent rounds to inspect the snags, which are riddled with insect and woodpeckers’ holes. Hooded mergansers, egrets, herons, and other water birds regularly visit the pond.

Throughout Florida and much of the U.S., groundwater aquifers are being depleted by humans for short-term economic gain. Until relatively recently the vast Floridan Aquifer was treated by the State’s water managers as an unlimited resource. Of course aquifers receive water from rainfall that recharges the ground and that income is clearly finite. Before the invention of wells, aquifers spilled their excess water where they overflowed to the ground surface at springs. When human society pumps groundwater, springs flow less, and aquifer levels fall. With continued increases in groundwater extractions, the surface of the aquifer falls below the spring vent elevation, and one-by-one the springs stop flowing. H.T. Odum recognized this problem early due to the drying up of Kissengen Springs in Polk County in the 1950s. He also prophesized the loss of

Art by Dr. E.A.McMahan Silver Springs, Ocala, FL
Art by Dr. E.A.McMahan Silver Springs, Ocala, FL

other springs, even the mightiest in volume like Silver Springs due to increasing groundwater uses. That unfortunate eventuality is now manifested by Silver Springs losing over one-third of its long-term average flow. Through science and education the H.T. Odum Florida Springs Institute is shining a bright light on the problem of excessive groundwater use and the inevitable impacts of that excess on the loss of Florida’s most unique and endangered natural ecosystems – springs, spring runs, and the rivers and estuaries they support.

Fitting into nature (or not)

Sinkholes can connect to aquifers and create direct pathways to introduce toxins such as pesticides or nitrates into drinking water. Runoff from fertilizers, pesticides, and street runoff also create eutrophication of ponds, where more phosphorus and alteration of the natural system create overgrowth of duckweed or invasive plants. One day I heard a buzzing noise out on the pond, and there was a man on a small airboat, spraying duckweed. I went out, and asked him what he was spraying, and why. He said, “2,4-D and glyphosate (Roundup), to kill the duckweed.” He had been hired by the neighbors across the pond, who held a different philosophy about what was important. We had a discussion. Is the duckweed harmful or permanent? If we spray poisonous toxins, it may have a direct, short-term impact on its target. But what else is vulnerable? Does it enter the food chain, and could it impact human health? When we spray pesticides to kill invasives or insects, does that eventually kill the birds or other animals that eat the duckweed or insects, necessitating more spraying and creating a bigger, long-term problem? The man agreed that it was pretty useless to spray duckweed with pesticides, and that he was almost done anyway, and slunk off.  It is ironic that those who are hiring the pesticide sprayers are also the ones causing the duckweed through fertilizer use/runoff. Why not just let the fish, ducks, and other creatures that eat duckweed take care of it? I guess that natural process would take too much time that we are no longer patient enough to wait for.

If you are trying to restore natural systems, but you do not have control of the entire watershed, how can you protect from impacts from the larger system? What are the system boundaries, and what happens when good things at the smaller scale are impacted by more powerful inputs from the larger scale? One of the recurring themes at the conference was the difficulty or even impossibility of having a sustainable subsystem within an unsustainable system at large. How do we create sustainable local systems when impacted by high emergy inputs and feedbacks from the failing larger scale? For example, from one of a number of similar reports from the Emergy conference,  Østergård found in a recent study (more on that later) that a so-called sustainable small organic farm used only 13% renewables, and that the Emergy Yield Ratio was only 1.15–patently unsustainable.

At the same conference, Morandi examined Tuscany from its nested position within the larger systems of Italy and then the European Union. Cross-boundary imported flows between larger and smaller systems are so dominant that indices compared between the scales become incongruent. This will be more and more an issue over time–there are no good answers, except to continue to work on improving relocalization of energy, nutrients, feed, and food in adaptation as time goes on (Markussen &  Østergård , 2013).

The pond has seen other experiments in surplus energy. When we moved here there were some domestic Pekin, Muscovy, and Mallard ducks and several geese on the pond. I fed them commercial feed, resulting in a duck population explosion of up to 30 ducks on this small pond, with the resulting overcrowding, waste, and noise, resulting in eutrophication of the pond. At some point, I stopped feeding them, and there was a rapid decline in the population, from 30 back to about 4, which appeared to be the general, natural carrying capacity of the system except the occasional, random feedings of stale bread by visitors.

A yellow jacket colony made a huge nest, unfortunately near the back steps to the house. One day, I walked across the entry hole in the ground by accident, and was swarmed by yellow jackets. They chased me into the house, stinging me 20-25 times—ouch! Fortunately I am not allergic to yellow jackets. Too close to the house for comfort, the large nest had to go. Unfortunately there are tradeoffs for everything. The yellow jackets probably supervised the extermination of cockroaches, spiders, and termites, keeping our house remarkably free of the ever-present insects in houses in Florida.  Hopefully they will rebuild somewhere further away from the house, as they offer natural pest control along with the woodpeckers and other birds. Odum’s theory about the termites was that if you leave the deadwood standing, the termites will go nest in those instead of inside your home’s timbers. So far, so good.

Beating back nature again via Allie Brosch

One of my tasks this month was to clean out the basement. The task was long over-due, and there was evidence that rats had been in there. One of the red-shouldered hawks lingered, as I pulled things out and swept. Sure enough, I must have flushed a mouse or small rat out, because 10 feet away in the shrubbery, I heard a whoosh, and looked over, and the hawk was struggling to extract itself from the shrubs with rodent in talons. Ten minutes later, I roused a bigger rat, and chased it around with a broom until I chased it out the door. The rat had a terrified look on its face as it fled the woman with the broom and exited to the great wide open. Five minutes later, I heard a terrified rat shriek, and one of the two hawks had pounced on that rat, too. Nature’s clean-up detail had arrived. The hawks knew what cleaning out a basement means–free dinner! No need for rat poison or other toxic means—just open the system and allow access to natural means of pest control. From the rat’s perspective at the smaller scale, however, one minute you’re sitting pretty in your cozy rat’s nest, and the next you’re ousted and set adrift in dangerous currents by a giantess!

watchful waiting red-shouldered hawk
watchful waiting red-shouldered hawk

Squirrels thrive in the branches of large trees, energetically subsidized by bird food from peoples’ birdfeeders. In late January, squirrels are already cutting small branches and building nests in hollows of large oaks, while azaleas pop out below on the forest floor. The squirrels keep a watchful, wary eye on the red-shouldered hawks. The owls are the largest hunters, and they even eat the hawks.  A brush pile hides a possum’s hole. The possum churns the leaf litter, and act as part of nature’s clean up crew.  The possum probably has to hide from the cats, though, so I recovered the possum hole with brush.

An overpopulation of well-fed outdoor house cats cruise the territory, terrorizing and decimating the nesting birds. Cats also live a energetically-subsidized lifestyle, providing unfair advantage against the natural scale of the system. They seem to hang around outside the basement door, along with the hawks, so perhaps they do something useful within the system, too, as ratters.

Work with nature, and nature will work for you

How can you do the same? Look around you. Is your home surrounded by a monoculture lawn subsidized by fertilizers and pesticides, devoid of natural diversity and the work of nature? Or if you live in the middle of the city, and you can’t even see any green, where are you drawing your ecosystem service supports from? To what degree are you existing in support of nature or in opposition? How can you become more of an earth steward, and do your small part, in opposition to the economy at large?

Rebuilding natural systems takes time and the cooperation of nature. One way to stop fighting nature is to start is as Odum did, by planting seeds or trees, and by fostering diversity. Working with nature requires more time than fossil-fuel lifestyles do, so the changes are not as readily apparent, and need to be started soon. Start from the ground up, by improving the soil. Get rid of fertilizer and pesticides, and begin composting and adding soil. Cover the soil with leaf litter to prevent erosion and promote healthy organic soil—leaves are wealth, and should be kept on the land. You can also mulch over your lawn with newspaper, for example, and begin a vegetable garden wherever there is an opening in the canopy. Once trees are established by first watering, no more energetic inputs are necessary if the ecosystem is intact. A natural lawn without watering, fertilizer, or pesticides draws wildlife diversity, and is cheaper and easier to care for. Over the long-term, in addition to reestablishing ecosystems, the trees improve self-sufficiency by shading and cooling in place of air conditioning, and downed trees can be used as firewood for wood stoves to heat your home later on.

So, look around you. Are you part of the problem, or part of the solution? If you care for some land, what does your front lawn look like, for example? A monoculture green lawn is a symbol of high-energy status and control of nature, and it makes a strong statement about your beliefs about the economic growth engine and the role of nature. Fossil fuel-based lifestyles allow us to skip over many levels of the food chain and to live in concentrated, non-renewable-derived lifestyles. While those lifestyles appear to be independent of nature and self-sufficient, they are just the opposite. Urban settings that are absent of nature are even more  reliant on huge emergy footprints that are invisible to us, but that act to hollow out nature and our more sustainable communities in other places. As our energy basis for man and nature declines, if there is no diversity of nature to fall back on to support us instead, we will really be in trouble. And settings devoid of nature may be increasingly shunned, as those settings may begin to feel wrong. The recent popularity of  zombies movies filmed in urban settings suggest we can feel the change in our hearts. We just don’t know it yet in our heads.

Are you tired of your New Year’s diet resolutions? Beginning this process of restoring nature on a personal level is a satisfying, first, hopeful step in adapting to descent. It is one thing to know what you need to do in your head, but it is a large step beyond just knowing,  culturally speaking, to be doing it with your whole heart. It is only when we begin to live within the energetic limits of natural systems that we are able to see and understand how we fit into nature, and to feel the peace of the forest.

sounds of the forest this morning–even birdsongs pulse


  • David MacLeod

    I love this post about revisiting Howard Odum’s old home, and to hear about how he practiced “Permaculture” before it existed as a word, based on his own ground-breaking understanding of systems ecology. He never had direct contact with Holmgren or Mollison, but he was a huge influence on David Holmgren, and it is fitting to consider him the grandfather of Permaculture.

    Mary, would you agree with where Albert Bates placed Odum on his Collapsenik chart?

    • Ha. Hi, David. Which answer do you want, the one he took to Congress, the one he told his students, or the one he laid on me at the dinner table? :-}

      • David MacLeod

        All three, of course. But especially the one he laid on you at the dinner table!

        • Hmm. I think for the dinner table stories, you’re going to have to come to Anchorage, and we can sit around the firepit in the long summer evening, and I can speak to that. Bates’ chart, with its assumptions and its predictions about the long-term future of a very, very complex system, shoehorns people with very different backgrounds and perspectives into one worldview. Odum was a systems scientist with a holistic perspective, and while there were some predictions that could be made with certainty, those mostly revolved around thermodynamics. How we react as societies to those physical realities will be different, depending on the country involved, its relative ESI, and how powerful the forces at the larger scale are, in terms of wars, global pollution impacts (I’m thinking of geoengineering and nuclear waste as the most threatening), and other uncontrollable wild cards.

          If we are going to categorize people who consider the future, I would rather use Holmgren’s axes below that categorizes people according to their values and worldview. The continuum below places those who view the world from an ecological energetic position as agnostic, since the physics is immutable. What is variable is human culture over time, as it changes in response to energetic inputs, and adaptation can take many different forms. Those who hold to one position are not seeing the world entirely through an energy lens.

          That said, I was having a conversation with someone yesterday about activism and science, and whether it is appropriate. It is an important discussion to have, as science is currently reductionist, and it is either unavailable or has been slanted by media forces by the time it is eventually disseminated the general public. In Bates’ grid, he is throwing scientists in with activists, and shoehorning the scientists into roles that they probably don’t want to be labeled. Is it appropriate for scientists to take activist roles? Money influences science, and I firmly believe that, as Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” But at this late stage of capitalism with its strong corporate influence of universities and science, that can be said of scientists as well as activists. Scientists think they are doing pure science, while impacted all along by the culture at large in a myriad of small but powerful feedback loops.

          At the very least, scientists should be making great effort to interpret and disseminate their science for the general public, especially for the science that helps to interpret the coming descent. We need policy guidance, and mature science can guide policies, if it is understood and well interpreted. There are a lot of aging scientists out there who are stepping back from their research roles, but who have great wisdom about ecological systems and how we can live more equitably within nature. A more active role by these people is needed to counteract the misguided activism of people like McKibben and Hansen, who pose the wrong questions, and thus may suggest that nuclear power and geoengineering are our answers. These wise elder scientists have an important transitional role to play in policy, if they can shift gears. The highest empower use of an aging scientist is to promote policies that use the science appropriately, rather than retiring to the golf course.

          I think Bates needs a separate grid for the scientists, and their worldviews, using different axes. Thanks, David, for the excellent question!

          • David MacLeod

            Excellent reply, thanks! In the Proctor Podcast interview, Odum shared that his father pursued gradual reform strategies for civil rights, but what actually happened was more of a dramatic flip in the ’60s. In the same way, he thought that we would come to a point in society where energy descent would be so obviously happening and necessary, that the public and society might dramatically flip beliefs and behavior, the way ecosystems sometimes do, of necessity.

            Good charts above! I’m not fond of Bates’ chart, but he notes another one done by Dave Pollard (; and Ran Preiur writes about how he would make a chart (Jan. 20 entry): “If I made my own chart, I would have one axis for tech crash vs no tech crash, another axis for pessimist vs optimist, and two different charts for what the writers want and what they predict if everyone doesn’t do what they say.”

          • Thanks for bringing that up–the Proctor Podcast. Yes, there will be a tipping point, I think. And it will be an emotional reaction to the stark decay of industrial society.

            Odum would have wanted to be categorized by his ideas, the energetic principles. Most people who think that we can achieve a soft landing typically do not see the entire energy basis for mankind. If one truly sees the whole basis, the massive transformity that goes into space travel, a derivative on wall street, or us having this valuable conversation online, then the idea that we can peaceably transform things for 7 billion people while keeping most of modern society becomes difficult to swallow.

            The thing that concerns me about science and activism is that because emotion is considered to be the opposite of reason, modern science has excluded the existence of emotion to the point that we deny many of the impulses that impact reason. There is no action without emotion. Without addressing those biases that emotions create, we become tools of the system at large, unknowingly. Science becomes a passive technological tool of a dangerously industrialized society. And since there can be no activism without emotion, scientists sit passively by and let it happen. We have gone too far in denying and suppressing our feelings. Those feelings need to be recognized, denial needs to be exposed, and biases need to be placed on the table–not only publication and funding biases, but all of the other human cultural beliefs that impact the questions that we ask, and the questions that we bury. Increasing passivity and disconnection of scientists with the culture is not healthy, as corporations are then allowed to run roughshod over society, while scientists sit passively by allowing their tools to be used in destructive manners, or even join in and promote it.


          • Jan Steinman

            When I saw the Bates chart, I figured that I must be on the Z Axis, since there was no place for me on it that I could identify.

  • Dcrickett

    The dilemma is as old as sin. Plato’s «Republic» starts off as a bull session of guys drinking wine and developing a question: “How can one be a just man in an unjust society?” The impossibility of this leads to development of a serious proposal for a just society, the first utopia. More utopias have been proposed since; their record has not been good. Some utopian attempts (Communism, Islamic Republicanism, et alia) have been disastrous.

    Humble, small-scale attempts in a pluralistic setting seem more practical, perhaps even possible.

    • The power of control from the larger system–exactly, Dcrickett. And I think the kids, some of them, see it. I hope it is possible.

  • Jan Steinman

    A note about yellow jackets… their visual-neurological system apparently does not identify non-moving things as a threat. This has been my theory for some time, and I’ve had numerous occasions to test it.

    One time, a few of us were working firewood in the bush, hauling out huge Doug fir rounds and taking them to a tractor with a three-point hydraulic splitter. I pulled a round out of a slash pile and picked it up, and a huge cloud of yellow jackets came out of the pile. My two friends ran screaming, and both were stung multiple times.

    I froze, sweating with the strain of holding the 70-pound round, not even moving my gaze. My friends said the cloud of yellow jackets came toward me, circled me three times, and went back into the slash pile. I slowly backed away, and even though I was the closest to the nest, I was the only one who didn’t get stung that day.

    From anecdote to parable, sometimes we rush about, doing this and that to try to “save the earth,” while we go about our everyday business of destroying the earth. I like that Odum brought back trees and planted them at his leisure, rather than doing a “Permaculture design” and then going out and doing a bunch of disruptive things.

    Permaculture design — as commonly taught in certificate courses — seems too top-down to me, missing opportunities for evolving iterations. I think we need to slow down, do small things thoughtfully, rather than get out there with a D-9 and start digging ponds and swales and berms.

    Don’t just do something; sit there! And meanwhile, the Earth heals itself.

    • Hi, Jan, what interesting metaphors are swirling around in your head. What great presence of mind and control you had to stay still! Yes, so I learned, about the movement issue with yellow jackets. Also, pheromones! Things you can’t see or detect are really there, and they can hurt you! I must have swatted the first one, before I knew what was happening, and I ran for the door of the house about 15 feet away. They followed, and at least 10 came in the house with me. My husband was inside, and watched while I was chased around and around. I had to rip my clothes off, as they went for eyebrows and under clothes. Yet they never touched my husband–the first few had zapped me with pheromones, and I was then labelled as the enemy, no matter what.

      Yes, working with nature means moving at a lower energy pace, letting her do the work and just guiding the results. A lot of permaculture doesn’t quite get or view the energetic component of the system properly, which, as always, is the most important piece. And they are too impatient. Nature is slow, and low-energy systems take time. We are too used to having our way, now. At the same time, maximum power says that if we have the energy, we should use it, but in the best way to make adaptations. How do we do that, and understand the tradeoffs–that is emergy science. This is the piece that appears to be missing from permaculture overall–the understanding of maximum power, and how we use the idea in descent to improve our chances. You’re a smart guy, Jan–I’m still waiting for that blog post!

      Edit to add: that Bates chart and the Z-axis. That Bates chart says what’s going to happen, without defining the theoretical base of the proponents. That’s the problem with the blogosphere–a lot of hot air and rash statements about the future with no basis.

      • Jan Steinman

        “the first few had zapped me with pheromones, and I was then labelled as the enemy, no matter what.”

        I don’t have any evidence to support this, but I suspect that, rather than zapping you with pheromones, your fear caused you to exude fear chemicals, and that made you the target!

        The hardest thing about my “aha” experience was not standing still; it was in not exuding attractants. I recited the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear as I stood there, and slowed my breathing to control my heart rate to slow exuding whatever my amygdala and medula oblongata were telling my body to exude.

        This is my philosophy for the great unknowns facing us today. Yea, fear is. Get over it. Quickly. Then take a step in the right direction.

        Thanks for the re-invitation for a guest posting. I’m making progress toward such a goal. Yesterday, I saw the surface of my desk for the first time since September. But I often find I have to spend all my time on the demands of the unreal world that I have little time left for the real world. Sigh.

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