WILD ECOLOGIES - Featured post #1: Here Steve Duplantier offers some personal perspective on biodiversity, Proudhon and the bewildering complexity within that defies any anthropocentric appeal to a distinction between anarchy and order.
by Stephen Duplantier
Speculative, more-than-human turns in both weather and philosophy are best examined locally. Here goes. I live in Costa Rica squarely on the edge of an ecotone with the Bosque Nuboso Los Angeles cloud forest on one side. Moist air blows into the central valley over the Tilaran cordillera from the Pacific and this moisture condenses as clouds and paints us every day with wetness. I am sitting in a dense white-out as I write this. The rainy season began in earnest a few days ago and will add to the daily horizontal rain that we get from the clouds as they sieve through the trees.
Naturalists studying the Neotropics of the Americas are bewildered (a perfect word choice) at the number of species they encounter. It’s not just the naturalists out in the forest seeking new species who run into the biodiversity. Usually not a cloudy day dawns that I am not able to find tardy insects from the night before who stayed past their curfew. Almost always, I see something I haven’t seen before and will likely never see again. I am friends with Angel Solís, a beetle specialist at the Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad. During a visit to the Institute’s collections, he showed me the cabinets full of insects, and especially all the ones discovered and named by him. He has named them after himself, his wife, his children, but at this rate, he doesn’t have enough offspring to continue his family-based nomenclature, though somewhere nearby he surely has enough cousins and kindred.
In the temperate zones, a patch of forest may have several hundred species of all types. Here in the Neotropics, the same-size patch may have tens of thousands of species. A few meters from my door are trees I have not been able to identify below the genus level which receive the daily and nightly moisture from the blowing mountain clouds. Nearly every branch and branchlet of theses trees is festooned with living things—epiphytes, lichens, mosses, fungi, liverworts, cacti, ferns, bromeliads, and orchids. These usually small plants are attached firmly to the branches trapping dust particles and moisture forming a living raft of small scale bewilderment. These branch-sized biospheres can be thick as a few centimeters and much thicker on the older and bigger branches. There are even epiphytes growing on the epiphytes creating impossibly-complex miniature forests in what seems like a limitless fractal repetition of forms with a bewildering—that word again—mutually assistive assortment of species. The ideas of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon live on vibrantly in the rain and cloud forests. Property may be theft, but what is it when things grow mutually on top of something, and something grows on them? Usually the layered growth is commonly beneficial. I haven’t even considered insects and the other phyla found throughout the epiphytic environments, but they are in there, helping, maybe eating some leaves.
The experiences of naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace in 1895 in the rainforests of the Americas led him to observe that when noticing a particular tree species and wanting to see more like it, it might not be possible to find one, even with searching the area. He might find a similar one, but on closer examination discover that it was very likely distinct. He was adrift in a forest of singularities. Darwin wrote, “The land is one great wild, untidy luxuriant hothouse, made by nature for herself.” Forgive Darwin’s personification of nature: his point shines through about a more-than-human feeling and experience. This is the “tangled bank” he described which seems to care not a strangler fig about soft-fleshed naturalists penetrating its thickness. That tangled wildness which ignored passing naturalists, even one as great as Darwin, is today entangled with others of Darwin’s species—those now-ubiquitous bipeds dragging Anthropogenic dread behind most everything they do.
Back to the branch. The order/anarchy distinction makes no sense on the branch of a tree in a cloud forest. The anarchy is the order. Each tiny plant is a singularity for all practical purposes, following the primary biodiversity rule of occupying all available space and multiplying species as much as necessary and possible. The tree is filled with branches of miniature forests such that it is hard to see the tree for the tiny forests encrusting the branches. Where the branch ends and the epiphytic community begins is not easy to determine. But the tiny epiphyte community is bigger by one large biped when I look at it. My interest in the branch and the tree hooks me into a tiny corner of that biome in what I want to be a friendly way. But the contact is complicated by my human entanglement and seemingly inextricable backstory enmeshment in the Anthropocene. I have a car parked not far away. Doesn’t it seems like the epiphytes have a not-so-friendly neighbor—me! It’s not personal. I am happy to have these tiny complex neighbors. But it is me who is bringing the epiphytic neighborhood property values down.
The high species richness across many taxons with individual phenotype rarity is the tropical pattern worldwide. Costa Rica has more overall species richness than is found even in Amazonia, counting epiphytes, herbs, shrubs and trees. Why so much diversity in Costa Rica? There is no one simple answer since interrelated ecological forces are operating, but a short answer is that if conditions permit it, diversity happens. Two main factors apply here: given abundant resources resources and the absence of killing frost, high biological diversity will occur. This is the multiplying singularity and order found in wild anarchy for free.
An unheralded consequence unleashed by the anthropogenic liberation of carbon and the effects of the greenhouse gases warming of the oceans and raising world temperatures will be less frost and therefore more biodiversity. Less frost will catalyze more successful speciation and evolution. Warming trends equal accelerating diversity trends. In the human-scale sphere, can this trend continue? Singularities are primed to increase in anarchies of oneness. Wild ecologies emerge when anarchy is free and abundant. At least that’s what my branch told me this morning