Abundance, Diversity, and Death

Nature values life in abundance. The very soil beneath our feet is evidence of this truth, a testament to the untold abundance of all that has lived and died since life’s first humble beginnings here on earth. In equal measure, nature values diversity of life. Anyone who has ever strived to maintain a weed-free lawn can testify to this truth, as can anyone who has ever pondered the existence of the infectious diseases that so often plague us.

Abundance and diversity, these twin values ultimately work in concert with each other, despite appearing to engage in mortal combat from time to time. Like when an abundance of foxes decimates a population of hares, annihilating diversity in the process; or when the abundant crop that we’d hoped for doesn’t materialize on account of the insects, weeds, fungus, or disease that came to call "our" garden home. Notwithstanding the inevitable ebb and flow in the short term, abundance and diversity do eventually come to exist in harmony with each other. This is the natural peace of the deep, virgin forest. This is the natural peace of the unbounded prairie.

Forsythia Koreana

I would be remiss, however, if I failed to mention a very obvious reality of the natural world. Namely, its propensity to wreak unspeakable havoc on abundance and diversity alike – as if neither were valued one iota. Fire, for instance, kills indiscriminately as it sweeps through virgin forest and across unbounded prairie. Floods mercilessly scour the lowlands of whatever hapless creatures can’t make it to high ground fast enough. And, yet, fire is an important part of the ongoing cycle of the virgin forest and the unbounded prairie alike, clearing the way for greater abundance and diversity. Floodwaters, similarly, make the bottomland soil all the richer after they recede. In nature, then, death ultimately acts in the service of life, making way for its renewal even when it appears to act with inexplicable cruelty and indifference to whatever life already exists.

I recently became the new caretaker of one small corner of this natural world. No, it’s neither deep, virgin forest nor unbounded prairie, but it is a natural wonder nonetheless. It could be even more natural, of course, but there exist a few community standards to uphold; not to mention the more selfish concerns that keep me from letting nature prevail in all the ways that it could – like letting vines wind their way into our living quarters, or letting bats find their way into the attic, or allowing trees to dangerously overhang the eaves.

Such realities notwithstanding, I do try to uphold and live in accord with the balanced values of abundance and diversity as much as I can. For instance, I err on the side of singular abundance over diversity in culling trees that are crowding out the one that is most robust, or has the greatest potential to be so. On the other hand, in areas where an abundance of saplings are competing for the same window of sky, I err on the side of diversity in choosing which among them shall remain. I’ve also experimented with letting swaths of lawn return to native plants and wildflowers – a step toward greater abundance and diversity.

A few weeks ago I set about transplanting a scraggly forsythia bush that I’d months ago noticed was eking out a somewhat stunted life beneath a massive spirea bush at the end of the driveway. The two of them were likely planted together some years ago. The spirea, however, being in a better position to catch the first light of morning, must have gotten a jump on the forsythia and never once contemplated relinquishing its dominance. The pitiable forsythia fought hard for its existence in subsequent years, though. Its branches grew almost horizontally out from underneath its overbearing neighbor until finally being able to claim a modicum of light. And that’s how it was able to catch my eye as well.

Interestingly, once I began exploring the root system of this homely looking forsythia I came to realize that it had been sending out shoots in various directions, as if in search of more hospitable surroundings. Perhaps even if I’d done nothing at all it would have eventually clawed its way to freedom, albeit with far less abundance than might now be possible. For if the various transplanted shoots all manage to survive until next spring, there will be some ten separate forsythia bushes all around the premises! Both diversity and abundance will be enhanced, and pleasing to the eye of this meddling human as well.

Yes, my duties as caretaker here give me ample opportunity to practice being in the natural world, to practice bringing my aesthetic sense, my will, and my labor into accord with the natural values of abundance and diversity.  But what about that natural propensity toward violence and destruction? Indeed, some caretakers imitate this natural propensity as well, approaching gardening and landscaping with grand plans that require the destruction of entire swaths of existing foliage and habitat. In the corner of the world in which I act, however, I try to temper with humility and compassion such urges. I try to keep in check as much as possible the imposition of my short-sighted and ill-informed human will. Determining what is needed in a natural sense take precedence. Thus, a dying tree that might otherwise be slated for harvest gets a reprieve once it is discovered to be the abode of one of the neighborhood raccoons. Plans to replace an aging deck, likewise, are put on hold once chipmunks are found to have taken up residence underneath it. Yes, I practice being in the natural world, but I’m not so practiced as to feel comfortable wielding violence in this little corner that I oversee. This I must leave to the forest fire, the flood, the earthquake, and the tornado. Such responsibility is too great for one who cultivates awareness of all the beings that share his space – a space that I so want to manifest the natural peace of the deep, virgin forest and the unbounded prairie.

We can watch these natural principles play out on both a grand scale and in our individual human lives if we merely pay attention. So often we strive for human abundance to the detriment of diversity. But it’s not difficult to see how this can come back to haunt us. It’s now quite plain to see, for instance, that wetland destruction for the sake of human development has contributed greatly to the havoc caused by flooding and coastal storm surges. A little diversity of habitat could serve us well in such situations. But diversity can also threaten our very lives and happiness without warning or explanation. Infectious disease can leave us with nature, red in tooth and claw, reigning over the otherwise seemingly sovereign domain of our very own bodies, or those of our loved ones. And all of us, without exception, will sooner or later become intimate with the sweeping violence of death.

Yes, death, by its very nature, is as sweepingly violent as a raging forest fire. For it lays waste in absolute entirety to that unique world that resides in and with every individual. It is violent, also, in that even the most peaceful passing is not so much a chosen fate as it is an acceptance of an unyielding power far greater than our delicate body and our fragile will to continue living. And even when death does appear to be “chosen,” it only appears so because its face smiles so compassionately and welcomingly while its otherwise most unwelcome and unyielding embrace grows tighter and tighter and tighter.

But let us not forget the natural peace of the deep, virgin forest and the unbounded prairie. Regardless of how unnaturally we might have lived, death is our final capitulation to the overwhelming power of the natural world. This surrender, in and of itself, allows us to once again know the natural peace that permeates all of space and time – the natural peace that wraps us in its arms even as the raging fire of death destroys everything that we once were.


Copyright 2017 by Mark Robert Frank


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