Rachel Bowanko: Unexpected Discoveries

rachelWhen I was first instructed to find a plant that I did not know the name of, observe it for an hour, and then identify it, I assumed that the assignment was going to be the longest hour of my life. I walked around for a while in search of a plant, realizing that I knew the names of very few of them. I looked at the plants around me and decided to perch my chair in an equally shady and sunny location. I sat down with my snack, water bottle, and notebook and stared out at the vibrant tree standing before me.

I watched a chipmunk scurry around on the branches and watched the needles on the tree stretch upwards towards the sun. I noticed the bright red hue of the cones and smelled a welcoming pine fragrance as I crushed the needles between my fingers and palm. I grazed my fingers over the rough bark and traced them along the trunk to where the tree came into contact with the ground. Before I knew it, I had spent well over an hour with this tree and could easily recognize its bark, trunk, branches, needles, and cones. This tree became familiar to me, and I felt that I had known it for much longer. Suddenly a task that seemed to be so arduous was something I never wanted to stop doing.

With excitement, I went down to the plant guide to identify my tree. I found it immediately, matching the description up with my notes. I read about it and learned that it was an Engelmann spruce, a member of the Pine family. I read about its cones and needles and the animals and plants that rely on it. I began reading about the uses of this tree and found my connection with it to grow even deeper. The Engelmann spruce is the common Christmas tree- a holiday that is central to my family where endless traditions and games make the season one of my most cherished times of the year. This tree is also used to make violins, an instrument that I grew up playing- an instrument that helped instill a love for music in me and helped to shape the path that my life would take. Perhaps even most relevant to my current passions and educational path, the bark of the Engelmann Spruce is used to make canoes. Ever since I was young, my earliest memories of the outdoors have centered about canoe trips full of wildlife sightings and watching the changing of the seasons around me. Canoeing helped foster the love I have for being outside today as well as my passion of conserving our planet. It has led me on several new adventures throughout my life and will lead me on countless more adventures to come.

Since that warm afternoon where I sat down with my tree, I have thought daily about all the lessons it taught me. Watching the tree provide shade for smaller plants, and shelter for animals such as the chipmunk, taught me about the importance of living at peace in a mutually beneficial relationship with your surroundings. Sitting above the vast and deep root system, this tree showed me the importance of being grounded. While only one species, this tree is connected so intricately with the environment around it forming a larger system. This larger system included both the living and non-living aspects of the environment and all the relationships encompassed within these. This bigger system was comprised over many relationships, only some of which included humans.

Even more striking than these lessons was how connected I was to a single species, and in turn to an entire ecosystem. Without this assignment, I may never have discovered its fundamental importance in my life and the life of thousands of other people.

While studying human land relations we read Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic” and a piece by Noss entitled, “Biodiversity and Its Value.” In Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic,” I was particularly drawn to the “community concept.” In this section, Leopold explains that as a member of a community we are drawn to both compete but also cooperate with others. He goes on to expand what is typically defined as a community to include soil, water, plants, animals, and the land. As part of a community with all the biotic and abiotic factors included, we as humans shift from a role as a “conqueror or the land” to a citizen of it where there is mutual respect and love between all organisms and the land on which we thrive and survive.

In Noss’ discussion on biodiversity, I was most captivated by the concept of the intrinsic values that nature has – values beyond the ones that are obvious to humans (such as food and fuel). Noss defines intrinsic values as “the spiritual and ethical appreciation of nature for its own sake” (Noss, 22). Both authors wrote about the innate value found in nature and the importance of all organisms. As I spent time with my Engelmann Spruce and the species surrounding it I fostered a deep level of respect in myself for not only this marvelous tree but all other living organisms. I was not only able to see the value of the tree through its connection to me and its connection with the other living organisms surrounding it, but I also was able to see its innate value and the necessary role it plays in the ecosystem.

If one species of tree could have such a profound impact on my life, who knows how many other species I could be just as connected to. If spending some time by one tree can grow my respect for nature and an urge for preservation so much, imagine where we would be as a society if people watched the land, spent time in nature, learned from the land, and learned to experience the land on new levels based out of respect and love. When our value of nature extends beyond human use, but instead is anchored on the intrinsic value of nature we will be able to live in harmony with the environment, protecting it and allowing it to flourish.

As I watched my tree stretch out towards the warm afternoon sun, I felt a desire to protect my tree. I wanted to wrap my arms around its gray trunk and never let go. However, I quickly came to the realization that in order to protect my Engelmann Spruce, I would need to protect the plants living below it. I would need to protect the fungus that provides nutrients to the soil that houses the roots of my tree. The soil giving it life and all the plants keeping the soil from eroding deserve respect and protection. The animals amongst the branches that helped to spread the seed of this tree need to be protected. This is where the concept of community that Leopold spoke about really hit home to me- to protect this tree I need to protect its surroundings. To live in a community with this tree I need to recognize its value beyond the one it provides humans (such as its use in violins and canoes). Living with the land in one community can be found where the value of human use and ecological use is equally appreciated and respected. Living with the land in ways that protect the resources for both human and ecological use; a way of living with the entire system.

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