Nature Notes: Blown to Smithereens

“It’s always something,”

As Roseanne Roseannadanna used to tell us on “Saturday Night Live,” “It’s always something,” Things haven’t changed, or is that “the more things change, the more they stay the same”? We’re living in an up-and-down world, in a dynamic equilibrium. If it weren’t for the sunrises and sunsets, the phases of the moon and the clock-like rise and fall of the seas two times a day, we would be lost.

The natural world and the human one are not that different, except that the first is dwindling more and more with each passing year while the population of the second is growing exponentially in size and complexity, with no sign of letting up. Locally, the first is beset with a new epidemic, the southern pine beetle, while the second is beset with McMansions, endless traffic snarling, and out-of-control opioid and alcohol use. And there is no end in sight.

Less than 50 years ago, we scientists thought that we had defined nature definitively. We worked out the structure of the animal and plant kingdoms and we divided the world into several ecosystems: deserts, grasslands, deciduous forests, coniferous forests, tundras, estuaries, and the like. We were able to describe in great detail the series of steps, or “seres” that were involved in going from bare soil to a stately forest, the end seral stage. We rejoiced in the culmination of this work; we thought we had it down solidly. We could take a well-deserved break.

Then all of a sudden we discovered that there were no final end points. The whole progressive, step-by-step system could be returned to its starting point as if overnight and a completely different set of seres would could result. Once well-defined ecosystems would become novel ecosystems, in chaos with as many invasive species as native ones. The wildlife species in these novel ecosystems would behave differently. Some would prosper, some would fade away, new ones would enter and create a cacophony of disharmony, the old notion of a familiar, fixed-in-space-and-time ecological assemblage had been blown to smithereens.

Humans, being creatures of habit, were befuddled and distraught. Their behaviors began to deteriorate and they turned to other ways of getting by. They were pulled this way and the other by conflicting goals and choices. Do we off the deer or do we befriend them? Do we save for the future or do we live for the moment? Do we keep farming or do we get an M.B.A. and join the Wall Street crowd? Do we abort or do we give birth? Do we move away or do we live at home? Do we stay the course or do we flow with the tide?

Do we see a shrink or do we work it out ourselves? Do we go to church or do we sleep in? Who do we love? There are an infinite number of choices. Most of them will work, at least for a little while.

While we are busy morphing from one form to another at a furious pace, the wild animals and plants are equally beset with choices, but their cultures are much more conservative than ours. They don’t dare give up their set ways for fear of losing out. They don’t have doctors, psychiatrists, retreats, and the like to get them through. 

Take the white-tailed deer, for example. Their native habitat is dwindling. What are they to do? If they don’t steal someone’s rhododendron leaves or nibble on their arborvitae, they will lose out. Living by night and not by day will give one some relief. Raccoons, opossums, cottontails, as well as deer, do better feeding in the dark than in the day.

Starlings and house sparrows do well in bluebird boxes. Gray squirrels and flying squirrels like our attics; they’re more protective and cozier. Norway rats are the most successful species of all. They are supreme generalists and will outlive us all! 

Southern pine beetles, gypsy moths, oak wilt, Asian longhorn beetles, black-legged ticks, lone star ticks, West-Nile-carrying mosquitoes, all of the weeds you can think of from the Old World. It’s a jungle out there, but not one we were brought up to live in.

Dixieland, swing, modern jazz, rock ’n’ roll, disco, rap, driverless cars?

Maybe the old-fashioned way is still the best way. Beethoven still works for me. What works for you?

Larry Penny can be reached via email at