The world under our feet


Living in our urban and suburban world, we most often think of the ground under our feet as a surface to put buildings and roads on, dig canals, and foundations and ponds, meanwhile plopping a few plants hither and thither to create what we think of as “landscapes.”

The “ground” as many of us call it is part of something much greater…part of our living planet, just as much as our dwindling forests, the air we breathe, and the plants and animals we eat…and interestingly, it plays a large part in all those as well.

For the “ground” is soil. It provides habitat for countless beings (there are more living things in a shovel full of soil than there are humans living on this planet). It is, as the Swiss Confederation reported recently, “the connecting element between the atmosphere and the groundwater.”

Our understanding of soil is just beginning to emerge as perhaps one of the 21st century’s greatest scientific breakthroughs.  Soil is the basis for food production, the habitat for innumerable organisms, a water filter and a natural store for carbon and water.

Here in North America, rock, ground down by glaciers, wind, water and other natural events, flowed down streams and rivers, deposited by floods and changing river beds, spread and deposited across the land.

In some places, large inland seas left huge deposits of organic material, as well as rocks and sand.

Sun, rain, frost and soil organisms worked together symbiotically in weathering the rock material, ultimately breaking it down into smaller and smaller particles. Slowly, soil took form. And in that form, plants and land animals began to thrive.

All the living beings that reside in the soil, all the minerals and elements that lay inside that structure, form not just a self-contained ecosystem which exists under our feet, but a truly ancient and rich ecosystem, tied inexorably to all the other ecosystems on the planet.

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Living on the edge (of the woods)


 

Population is growing – not just here in The Woodlands, or in Montgomery County, or in Texas, for that matter.

As that population grows, as new residential and commercial construction increases, the condition and size of natural habitat, where all varieties of species thrive, decreases. That may just be one of the facts of life of the 21st century.

Let’s talk about here in Montgomery County, and specifically in The Woodlands. Once, this area was a vast, contiguous tract of mostly pine forest. As development began, not only did the natural habitat area shrink, but it became fragmented.

While it may still resemble one, it no longer is a forest. It becomes, in effect, the edge of a forest, and is known to biologists, unsurprisingly, as the edge effect. Light, wind, temperature, moisture all change the dynamics of this ecosystem.

As we develop more “islands,” we change the requirements for native species of all types – birds, insects, mammals, plants, fungi and other flora and fauna.

Species which thrive deep in a forest are forced to abandon their habitat. The only species left are those which  thrive on the edges of a forest (or any native habitat). One might take a look at what’s left of the once magnificent Katy prairie to get an idea of what can happen to any habitat.

The species that are most affected by the loss of deep forest habitat are song birds. Decreasing the size of the forested area, and further fragmenting it with roads, reduces the living area of these species. A road cut through a forested area takes up a lot more room than just the thoroughfare. Increasing the edge of a forest also affects the reproductive abilities of many species.

Creating “islands” or forest edges without forests allows predators, of which there are many, easy access to many desirable species, including  the nests of song birds. These predators, which include racoons, cats (domestic and feral), rodents (not only rats – squirrels frequently raid nests for eggs or nestlings), skunks, snakes, oppossums, and predatory birds like the cowbird, who lays her eggs in the nest of a host species.

Is there a solution? Weighing the realistic needs of a human population against the retention of desirable species is a conundrum. Even in planned communities like The Woodlands, reduction of natural habitat for many species which once thrived here has been rampant.

End of rant.