Life is composed of rhythms ("routines" in the human sense) that follow the cycles of the universe, from the minute to the infinite. We humans most commonly experience these cycles of Nature in our pilgrimage through life as the days, months, and years wherein certain events are repetitive—day and night, the waxing and waning of the moon, and the march of the seasons, all marking the circular passage we perceive as time within the curvature of space. In addition to the visible manifestation of these repetitive cycles, Nature's biophysical processes are cyclical in various scales of time and space.
Some cycles revolve frequently enough to be well known in a person's lifetime. Others are completed only in the memory of several generations—hence the notion of the invisible present. Still others are so vast that their motion can only be assumed. In reality, however, even they are not completely aloof because we are kept in touch with them by our interrelatedness and interdependence. Regarding cycles, farmer and author Wendell Berry said, "It is only in the processes of the natural world, and in analogous and related processes of human culture, that the new may grow usefully old, and the old be made new."
When thinking about landscapes, I am often reminded of the fires, both large and small, that over the millennia shaped the great forests I knew as a youth. With that memory comes the realization that no forest (or any other biotic community) has either a single state of equilibrium or a single deterministic pattern of recovery. Those fires were a selective force that killed or wounded susceptible plants and affected the environment of others. Through the pen of evolution, the plants may have authored their own fate, thereby influencing the environment they inhabited as well as that which they passed to their offspring.
But Nature's cycles are not perfect circles, as they so often are depicted in the scientific literature and textbooks. Rather, they are a coming together in time and space at a specific point, where one "end" of a cycle approximates its "beginning" in a particular place. Between its beginning and its ending, a cycle can have any configuration of cosmic happenstance.
In this sense, Nature's ecological cycles can be likened to a coiled spring insofar as every coil approximates —but only approximates—the curvature of its neighbor and then always on a different spatial level (temporal level in Nature), thus never touching. The size and relative flexibility of a spring determines how closely one coil approaches another. Yet, regardless of a spring's characteristics, its coils are forever reaching onward.
With respect to Nature's ecological cycles, they are forever reaching toward the novelty of the next level in the creative process and so are perpetually embracing the uncertainty of future conditions. In thinking about the great forests I used to know, and those parts through which I can still hike, I am awed by all the factors that must come together to create a particular place as I perceived it or remember it, not just the events themselves but also the cycles in which the events are embedded.
A forest is the collective outcome of interdependent processes in relation to time, completing its cycle only in the memory of several human generations. We do not seem to understand this time frame, however, or we ignore it, because all our models—economic, managerial, and even ecological—tend to be short-term and linear. Our models are simple not only because we chose them to be so, based on some immediate interest, but also because we do not have the capability to construct them in any other way.
Whereas our models can predict only in a straight line in the very short term, the cyclical nature of life touches that line for only the briefest moment in forever. Yet, it is in this instant, with grossly incomplete, shortsighted knowledge, and unquestioning faith in that knowledge, that we attempt to predict the outcome of our human endeavors into the unforeseeable future.
This essay is excerpted from my 2009 book, "Earth in Our Care: Ecology, Economy, and Sustainability." Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ. 304 pp.
©Chris Maser 2009. All rights reserved.