by Denny Olson

Community Ed

From my experience, and I dare say the experience of tens of thousands of naturalists, artists, poets and explorers of the outer and inner landscapes, the big reason to include “nature” in our community of teachers, is that nature includes us in her usually benevolent and sometimes harsh rules. To survive, we need, and will always need, good food, clean water, adequate shelter, breathable air, and space. The ignorance that comes from twisting logic to think that nature belongs to us is beyond foolish. Nature depends on us not a whit. We are part of her community, and not the other way around. Countless indigenous sages, countless numbers of times, have tried to remind us that if we intend to learn from our “community”, then we’d better darn well include the Big One. 

The closer I’ve looked into the intricacies of nature, the more dumbfounded I have become at the sheer complexity of relationships between nature’s component parts — especially when looking through the lenses of time, space and mobility. Recently, part of my work responsibilities has been to produce an educational video on the connections between native plants, native insects, and native birds. Another part of my work is to advise and help manage Owen Sowerwine, our 403-acre river-bottom natural area, which is used for both education and recreation. It’s a book, always waiting to be opened. 

Common to both of those educational and stewardship responsibilities, my observations about the black cottonwood trees there, who support a natural population of the larvae of cottonwood borer beetles at a very specific time of the early summer, who in turn are preyed upon by Red-eyed Vireos, was revealing. The Vireos time the hatching of their eggs to the hatch of the beetle larvae – exactly – because that is the time when they suddenly need four times their normal amount of high-protein food to feed their growing chicks. The birds themselves are essential to the cottonwoods to prevent fast-reproducing beetles from over-browsing them. In June, there rings a cacophony of Red-eyed Vireo songs as each male of a pair sings up to 40,000 phrases per day. 

This is but one bird species among 435 or so in Montana, among as many as 18,000 species world-wide according to recent genetically-based adjustments. There are about 450,000 species of plants in the world, and probably 6 million species of insects. Considering those raw materials in the warp and weft of probable relationships and interrelationships and inter-interrelationships – it is difficult to conceive of anything in the fabric of nature being un-connected to everything else.

That unfathomably huge fabric includes us. We, and everything around us, are dependent on everything else around us. Some connections are close, and some may be a few degrees away. But they have always been, and will always be, there for us to discover. Nature’s one overarching lesson for humans is simple. We are part of the “community” of this planet, and our efforts separate ourselves through hubris, pretending to “improve” on nature, and pretending to “control” natural forces honed through millions of years, isn’t just folly, it is flat-out dangerous. Sorry folks, facts and evidence trump opinion, and as life goes, biology trumps economics and politics. To ignore that is to be a too-hungry Ouroboros serpent eating itself. Instead of representing renewal and rebirth, our version, with our impatience to dominate, would eventually eat its own head. We belong to this Planet, our community. It does not belong to us. That lesson is “Community Education 101”, day one.