CULLOWHEE — The survival of Earth’s biological diversity depends upon the “gardenification” of wild areas, the link created between humans and nature when the biodiversity of wild lands provides valuable products and services, a renowned ecologist told a crowd at a Western Carolina University symposium Wednesday (March 15.)
Daniel Janzen, a University of Pennsylvania biology professor and tropical ecologist, said the “gardenification” of wild areas is a manifestation of a “basic human trait.” When it comes to gardens, “making them, taking care of them and harvesting from them is an intrinsic and normal part of human society,” Janzen said.
Janzen was the keynote speaker at a symposium, “Biodiversity: New Perspectives on its Magnitude and Meaning.” The event, part of WCU’s Chancellor’s Science Symposium series, attracted a crowd of about 800 people, including science professionals, local high school students, and members of the WCU community.
The relationship between human society and the wild country is one that Janzen is nourishing in Costa Rica, where he has been trying to save biodiversity for 15 years by purchasing land and adding it to the Costa Rican park system. Through the efforts of Janzen and his wife, biologist Winnie Hallwachs, more than $32 million has been raised during that period to purchase and conserve an entire tropical forest ecosystem to add to that country’s Guanacaste Conservation Area.
When considered as a “wildland garden,” the Guanacaste Conservation Area is home to 235,000 species of “crops,” but not the kind of crops that come in “neat little rows,” Janzen said.
The wildland garden has two functions: ecosystem services, when the garden as a whole provides a service, such as providing a place for ecotourism to take place, or removing pollution from the air; and biodiversity services, in which a particular species provides a product, such as in pharmaceutical prospecting, Janzen said.
This “biodevelopment” of wild land, as Janzen referred to it, only becomes possible when the local people know what lives in those wild areas. A “yellow pages” directory that shows what is accessible is needed, and that is what the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory, now beginning in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, will provide to the Western North Carolina region, Janzen said.
In that inventory, scientists, over the next 10 to 15 years, will attempt to identify the estimated 100,000 species that live in the Smokies. To date, only about 800 species have been identified.
Findings from the inventory are to be published on the Internet, which will be the “yellow pages” for the Smokies, Janzen said.
While Janzen addressed ways to make biodiversity valuable to human society now, and preserve it for the future, Frederick Turner, a poet, philosopher and proponent of restoration environmentalism, spoke about a new vision of nature, revealed in a “new language the poets must seek now.”
“Suppose there could be a poetry, a scientific description of reality, a way of dealing with nature that left undamaged the principle, the honor, the history and myth, the ritual, and the intellectual criteria of believers and unbelievers of all kinds — as long as they were people of depth and thought and imagination,” Turner said.
Turner, who is Founders Professor of Arts and Humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas, reminded the audience that nature is resilient. Prairie is being restored on waste lots in the heart of Chicago, and, while the number of species on Earth is declining, “gross genetic diversity within the successful species whose habitats have been extended by human beings may actually have increased, leading to a greater likelihood of speciation (development of new species through evolution),” he said.
Matthew Kane, an expert on microbial biodiversity from the National Science Foundation, spoke of the tiny microorganisms that “are the oldest, most diverse and most abundant form of life on Earth.” Microbes, too, demonstrate the resilience of nature, Kane said, as he related stories of microbial life being found in unlikely places such as near-boiling hot springs, deep in caves, in the depths of the sea, and in acidic pools.
An average gram of soil contains one billion microbes, including bacteria, archaea, protozoa, algae and fungi. It is estimated that only 1 percent of the microbial species on Earth have been identified.
“Every time you step outside in your back yard, you are interacting with thousands of undiscovered microbes,” Kane said. “Undoubtedly, the next century is going to be filled with exploration and discovery of this unseen majority.”