A Broken Circuit

The authors we read this week explored the resilience of the land, as told through the story of soil. Whitman refers to the cycle in his poem “Compost” as “endless successions of diseas’d corpses.” In “The Grist of the Gods,” Burroughs says “life and youth spring forever from its decay” and Leopold explains, in more scientific terms, “food chains are the living channels which conduct energy upward; death and decay return it to the soil.” Death is not an end in nature, but rather part of an eternal cycle of resilience.

Leopold, however, pushes back against the idea that this natural cycle cannot be irreparably damaged. In his section entitles “The Land Pyramid,” Leopold explains in scientific but simple terms how energy flows through ecological systems. The interconnected web of life is a circuit, which changes slowly overtime but generally is able to adapt. Humans throw a wrench in this system with “changes of unprecedented violence, rapidity, and scope.” Both Whitman and Burroughs express that man is born from soil and will return to it. Leopold agrees that we are inseparably linked to the interconnected web of life, but we have violently altered the pyramid to serve our interests. He poses an important question: “Can the land adjust to the new world order?”

Based on my own experiences, I am at first inclined to say yes. Having lived and worked in Baltimore City, I have witnessed the resilience of nature firsthand. When prompted to write about the sublime in class, I recalled a moment from this summer. In southwest Baltimore, there is a former brown site turned environmental education center. The land has been rehabilitated and now provides habitat to native flora and fauna. Established right on the Patapsco River, we took our campers (students from the local elementary school) out on the boat once a week. During week two, as the students sat on the cabin top, baking in the sun, the captain called for us to look in the water. Gliding through the murk of sediment and sewage was a cownose stingray. The students were awed, as was I. How does it survive? I wondered. How does it move through these toxic waters with such grace and ease?

For me, this instance showed the resilience of nature. It was a sublime moment in which nature demonstrated its refusal to succumb to even the most potent human poisons. The ray symbolized rebirth from the dead waters of the Patapsco. But reading Leopold, I think back on the moment more critically. “The land recovers,” he writes, “but at some reduced level of complexity, and with a reduced carrying capacity for people, plants, and animals.” The cownose ray perhaps was not proof of Burroughs “incorruptible” soil, but simply the ghostly remnants of a once rich energy circuit. Most of the system’s atoms cannot reenter the eternal cycle of life, death, and rebirth, because they find themselves in Baltimore’s inner harbor, “imprisoned in oily sludge.”

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