Examining Ecology

Eileen Berger, Indian Trail Master Naturalist

When I first began my training to become a Master Naturalist, I had only a vague idea of the meaning of the term ecology. I had an interest in getting “back to nature” through gardening and landscaping, as well as a heritage of appreciating nature from my parents. But none of these were organized into a larger framework. As a result, I knew a little bit about a lot of subjects, but not enough of any one subject to really give me the “big picture”.

After more than three years of study, I now realize how little I know and how much more I have to learn. However, I will try to clarify a few terms and give some examples. What is ecology, you may wonder. As you may know, eco- in Greek means “house”, while -ology means study, and ecology means the study of nature that deals with the interdependency of all living things and their surroundings. So, all living things are dependent on each other. One of the amazing revelations for me was that mankind is in a precarious position, because we are at the top of a huge pyramid, figuratively speaking. Each human requires hundreds of thousands of lower species in order to survive. Below us are layers of plants and animals that we depend on for our food, clothing, fresh air, and clean water, to name a few. In the lower parts of the pyramid, insects far outnumber humans in their number of species, while plants far outnumber the animals. These are the inhabitants of Earth that are visible to the naked eye. Beyond those, the microscopic living entities form a gigantic base to our pyramid. In a given area, all the plants and animals make up an ecosystem.

I haven’t seen this particular cartoon for many years, but it made an impression on me. A grocer has stacked a huge pyramid of canned goods for an impressive display to attract the eye of the shopper. A little boy mischievously pulls out one of the cans, and you can guess the result. It doesn’t take much imagination to envision us humans at the top of our pyramid. The mischief could be in the form of a natural disaster, which wipes out plant crops that we need to survive. Or, it could come from an ill-advised man-made extinction by pesticide or herbicide of a group of plants or animals that are the key to our survival. It might also come in the form of human over-population; climate change, especially in the temperate zones on earth that supply our food; disease that wipes out a species that we need to pollinate our crops; or lack of clean water in highly-populated areas.

Most of us, when presented with these scenarios, at first might have the inclination to pass them off as too improbable to even worry about. Unfortunately, that could be a dangerous attitude to take. It would be far better to begin now to appreciate the plants, animals, and organisms which make our lives possible. Even more important, we can begin to re-evaluate our attitudes concerning “good” versus “bad” fungus, bacteria, insects, weeds, grasses, trees, birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish and mammals. Knowing that a healthy ecosystem includes many diverse organisms, both small and large, we must question the wisdom of denying all but a few plants, birds, or insects to live near our homes and in our cities and countrysides. What unseen problems and results might arise from this narrow view?

These revelations have changed my value judgments concerning my use of any chemicals in my yard and garden. I have come to co-exist with creatures and plants that I used to view as pests. As I continue to learn more about our ecosystem here in North Texas, who knows what old thoughts and beliefs will slip away?

Do you think nature should be part of our everyday life, not just somewhere to go on the weekends? You are invited to attend our free, open-to-the-public, monthly program on the fourth Monday of the month at 7 pm at the First United Methodist Church, Waxahachie, TX. For more information on the Indian Trail Master Naturalist Chapter, contact the Texas A & M AgriLife Extension Service at 972-825-5175 or visit our website: https://txmn.org/indiantrail/.

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