Saturday, July 23, 2016

Vagaries of Habitat

Egyptian peasant farmers
The transition from human subsistence on foraging and hunting to crop farming communities began around 10,000 B.C.

Humans have been moving, tilling, diverting, mining, burning, fabricating, fouling and laying waste unabated ever since.

The agricultural revolution was born from an aspiration to exercise sufficient control over our habitat to ensure a predictable supply of food.

Human impact on the biosphere is often ignored, downplayed, or denied, but that doesn't comport with the evidence. Humans have a knack for engineering and adapting the natural environment to changing needs and desires.

In Plans for Altering the River, poet Richard Hugo writes of the human propensity to engineer habitat. Hugo explores the vagaries and absurdities of altering a river.
Plans for Altering the River
by Richard Hugo

Those who favor our plans to alter the river
raise your hand. Thank you for your vote.
Last week, you'll recall, I spoke about how water
never complains. How it runs where you tell it,
seemingly at home, flooding grain or pinched
by geometric banks like those in this graphic
depiction of our plan. We ask for power:
a river boils or falls to turn our turbines.
The river approves our plans to alter the river.

Due to a shipwreck downstream, I'm sad to report
our project is not on schedule. The boat
was carrying cement for our concrete rip rap
balustrade that will force the river to run
east of the factory site through the state-owned
grove of cedar. Then, the uncooperative
carpenters union went on strike. When we get
that settled, and the concrete, given good weather
we can go ahead with our plan to alter the river.

We have the injunction. We silenced the opposition.
The workers are back. The materials arrived
and everything's humming. I thank you
for this award, this handsome plaque I'll keep
forever above my mantle, and I'll read
the inscription often aloud to remind me
how with your courageous backing I fought
our battle and won. I'll always remember
this banquet this day we started to alter the river.

Flowers on the bank? A park on Forgotten Island?
Return of cedar and salmon? Who are these men?
These Johnnys-come-lately with plans to alter the river?
What's this wild festival in May
celebrating the runoff, display floats on fire
at night and a forest dance under the stars?
Children sing through my locked door, 'Old stranger,
we're going to alter, to alter, alter the river.'
Just when the water was settled and at home.

Hugo personifies water, writing water never complains and it runs where you tell it. The natural world seems to comply to the whims of the plan.

Los Angeles Aqueduct
by Jet Lowe

Despite our inclination to control, our most careful plans are subject to the unforeseen like a shipwreck downstream or uncooperative carpenters. Eventually it seems we must alter what's already been altered, "Just when the water was settled and at home".