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In ecology, where do you draw the line?

Tom Mahony 18 November 2009

Border disputes: nature is a continuum

Humans evolved amidst this natural complexity, and it forms an integral part of who we are

It’s irritating when nature refuses to cooperate with preconceived models of how it should behave. That’s the bane of the plant ecologist. Just when you think you’ve developed something pretty special in the office – an intricate vegetation classification or map – you head into the field and realize you’ve done nothing special at all.

Partitioning the world into discrete units is the only way to simplify ecological complexity for the demands of society. Boundaries must be drawn, maps made, ecosystems managed. There’s only one problem: the world is a continuum.

Distinct vegetation types – like forest, scrub, and grassland – are obvious on a broad scale. But look more closely. Where does the forest end, the grassland begin? Exactly which blade of grass forms the boundary? Is that patch of scrub a component of the broader forest, or a separate unit? There is no right answer.

Yet you still have to draw a line somewhere (and, no, encircling the entire area and labeling it “Big F#@%ing Mess” is frowned upon by the ecological establishment. Trust me. I’ve tried it.).

Humans evolved amidst this natural complexity, and it forms an integral part of who we are. Understanding it reveals something about the slippery enigma of humanity: life vs. death, right vs. wrong, ale vs. lager. As scenery on a pleasure hike, or fodder for caffeinated navel-gazing, the complexity is fascinating, beautiful, provocative.

But as the basis for your livelihood, it’s something slightly different: a Big F#@%ing Mess.