Friday, November 20, 2009

Balance















Balance.

What would it mean if balance were not, as we often imagine, some static moderate point between frenetic extremes?

What if balance is really the infinite flux, the intricate neverstill place with infinities equally thronging on all sides? If change is the tightrope and time is the walker, now swaying, now poised? If the talons of the hawk the second before grasping hold universes of possibility, and the imminent wounding of the vole coincides with, sways with, the singing of whales, the orgy of flowers, the collision of distant astral bodies?

Then control would be a vain attempt at limiting the infinite. It would be a devil pact, an ultimately barren act, engorged on self-deceipt.

We tend to view productivity as springing from control. Think of the modern cornfield: tilled to a blank slate, sprayed for weeds, sprayed for insects, doused with fertilizers, irrigated with transported water, planted with a monoculture.

Controlled to just a few particular elements. Becoming more devoid every year. More barren. More susceptible, too, to sudden, autochtonous crises, plagues of insects and pathogens and other monstrous particularities, previously held in balance -- that is, embraced in the throes of the infinite.

The devil's contract of control leads to first to outrageous productivity, which ultimately produces only barrenness*:

For most of its history, the Asian longhorned beetle occupied a small, largely unremarkable niche in the forests of China, Korea and Japan. It was not known as a serious pest. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, the Chinese government began to plant enormous windbreaks of millions of trees in its northern provinces in response to erosion and deforestation. These windbreaks were composed almost entirely of poplar trees, which mature quickly and tolerate the arid, cold climate of northern China. As it happens, the poplar is a tree favored by the ALB, along with maple, birch, elm and several other hardwoods. The beetle is unique among invasive forest pests for attacking such a broad array of hosts, which is partly why it is so dangerous.

Adult beetles feed on leaves, twigs and young bark. Females deposit anywhere from 35 to 90 eggs, one at a time, in pits they dig in the bark. When the eggs hatch, ALB larvae bore into the cambium, the tissue that ferries the tree's nutrients, and then they move into the heartwood. Over several years, this tunneling chokes off a tree's supply of nutrients and kills it—a death by a thousand cuts.

In the 1980s, as China's poplar forests matured, the ALB population exploded. Within a few years, hundreds of millions of trees were infested, and the Chinese government had to cut tens of thousands of acres of forest to prevent the beetle's further trespass.

Meanwhile, China, along with the rest of the world, experienced a surge in foreign trade. Since 1970, global sea trade has tripled, and today more than 90 percent of the world's goods travel at least one leg of their journey by ship. The United States went from importing 8 million sea containers in 1980 to more than 30 million in 2000. And most of those products—diapers, televisions, umbrellas—are packed in crates or on pallets made of wood. In the 1980s, pallets of infested poplar began to leave Chinese ports, carrying Asian longhorned beetle larvae. A stowaway on the global shipping network, the insect came into nearly instant contact with warehouses across the world.

[from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/Invasion-of-the-Longhorns.html]


A parable about control, the particular, and productivity. Why brutally deforest an entire ecosystem and then replant it largely with poplar? Poplar grows fast, all the experts would have recommended it is a quick fix, a straight line to a solution. Ignoring the worlds within worlds which had been destroyed in the deforestation, the balance of myriad poised universes.

Just like the cornfield, productivity was maximized. Until the inevitable slapback of teeming reality, the plague, the pathogen, the monster insect, emerged. Then, all was rendered barren.

Sometimes we mistakenly think that "controlled to just a few particular elements" is balance. Put bugs on one side, chemicals on the other, out comes balance.

Richard Hell sang that "love comes in spurts". Balance comes in universes.

Sometimes in ecology, we act as if there are means and ends. "If we improve plant habitat, we'll achieve higher bird numbers". Plants are the tool, birds the goal.

Ecology is not linear that way, not teleological. Neither is balance.

Let's return to that hawk, talons outstretched. What if she misses, her talons scraping Earth, voleblood vanishing into the unrealized future. Instead, some mud on a claw. In that mud, a seed. Eupatorium fistulosum.

The next day, she hunts a different wet meadow, plunges, strikes, kills. The seed dislodges and after the sleep of winter germinates. The Eupatorium flowers after two years, is attended by myriad pollinators. That winter, the stem withers and stands brown among the sedges. A vole cuts the plant's root-body, drags it, feasts on its sunbirthed sugars. The vole then awaits the fate of voles: a rapture of talons and blood... and the singing of whales, the orgy of flowers, the collision of distant astral bodies.

There is no means here, no ends. Birds are gardeners of plants, voles are the aftereffect of pollinators. Time is a line if contemplated by a dogmatist, but abuzz with hummingbirds, bees, heat, hunger, beauty, and claws if released to the infinite.

Balance is beyond our control. Monocultures, and mono-cultures, will strangle our reality. When you plant, dance, and do so with sway!



*I borrow this concept, clumsily, from Michael Taussig. See "The Sun Gives Without Receiving" in Walter Benjamin's Grave for more on the ecology of plantations, commodity fetishism, and the devil contract.

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