Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Climate Adaptation for Urban Nature...and Conceptual Adaptation for Urban Residents

I've been to several excellent nature-and-education-y gatherings this spring. (I generally tweet such experiences in a significantly more timely manner than my blogging about them, so Twitter is a good way to get the gist of a lot of thought-provoking happenings).

It's been months now but my first break-out session at the April 3 Chicago Wilderness 2014 Congress, "Climate Adaptation for Urban Nature," has continued to blow my mind. The session was conducted by scientists from the Field Museum, Morton Arboretum, and Northwestern University, who outlined Chicago's plan for climate-caused changes that they see!

The first aspect of the session that surprised me was the realization that a concrete, specific plan is even in place. While on the public wavelengths we are stuck in this ever-circling eddy arguing climate-change legitimacy, among those who can actually do something about it, at more local levels, stuff is actually getting done. For example, the session leaders told us, there are pilots already in place testing replacing trees at the edge of our ecological zone as they age out and die with trees that will be hardier to the new climate.

It was a tremendous relief to me to know that just because we only hear useless demogoguery doesn't mean necessary planning isn't happening. It's just a shame intelligent policy and implementation has to be conducted by stealth.

But this realization also was tremendously disconcerting. Replace our beloved Chicago trees with, like, pecan trees?? But what about the tree-ful signs of spring and summer and fall and winter? What about our familiar leaf shapes and smells? What will our parks look like? That's crazy! Crazy I tell you!

It sounds so obvious now. Of course, climate change brings ecological change, and far better to prepare for and facilitate the change, since there is no repelling it. But even for someone who thinks about climate change a lot (I do my best worrying in the early morning), it was, for a reason I don't understand, shocking to think about this element.

I was left with logistical questions. What about the critters that rely on these trees? You can't just go and and and replace the contents of an entire niche. What about all the other elements of that ecosystem--the plants that require the shade of those trees, the birds that eat the insects that live on our current trees, and so on? I'm pretty sure these scientists have thought about all that and only touched on this plan in the one-hour session, but their outline left me doing a Looney Tunes level double-take.

And I am still chewing on a question that straddles logistics and, I don't know, maybe philosophy. Given that everything is going to change and there is no stopping it, what is the point of conservation and restoration? What are we conserving? Plants and animals and systems that are going to disappear from our area anyway? Why are we restoring to a time that will never return?

Given the well of emptiness and loss this question leaves in me, I'm going to go with this question  neither logistical nor philosophical, but spiritual, at least for me.

I'd been mulling over this sad question since the Congress, but one of the speakers at the Center for Humans and Nature's May 4 Ethics and Nature symposium actually answered it, in part, in her talk. Conservation plant scientist Pati Vitt pointed out that a healthy and whole ecosystem is better able to adjust to climate change than a degraded one (think about how much less damaging the droughts and winds of the Dustbowl would have been if we had cultivated the land more thoughtfully).

Okay--that sounds right, and useful. But that doesn't sound like the whole answer to me. Maybe it's also that the notion of climate change makes all of us, even those of us who accept its reality, want to continue with our comfortable and comforting ways. I hope that's not it. I hope--I think--I don't know the answer yet. I do know that it seems increasingly important to keep conserving, keep restoring, and still keep planning.

Given the subject of this post, I thought this photo I took at last week's Nature Play workshop put on by Chicago Wilderness was a propos. Hah.

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