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Ecosystems: A Hitchhiker’s Story

Adventure Brings Learning

(Published in The EarthSphere Blog – Cover Image: The Game Board of Life by WM House; Illustration from the Book ‘Beer for Breakfast’; ArcheanArt)

I grew up on the Mid Atlantic Coast of the US, where pine forests dominated the flat tidewater region near the ocean, and temperate hardwood forest covered the mountains to the west. We had a variety of ecosystems, but still, there were no deserts, no wet coastal rain forests, no high plains, and no true high mountain terrains. Reading about deserts is no substitute for walking through them, and perhaps a tangible connection to an ecosystem is part of the process for expanding our environmental awareness.

Unusual events transpired in my late teens as I hitchhiked across the United States with my lifelong friend. We left normal behind and experienced the wide-open spaces and expansive ecosystems of America. I believe this journey was my real entry into the realm of environmental and ecosystem awareness.

My cover picture is an illustration recently produced for my friend’s account of the events that transpired as we stepped into the unknown. ‘Beer for Breakfast,’ an unconventional title for an unconventional trip, provides his chronicle of the journey. Our cross-country trip exposed us to stunning landscapes, viewed from the ground level. As we stood beneath open skies, with our thumbs being the only indicators of where we were headed, I truly started understanding both the beauty and harshness of the natural world. Deserts aren’t only hot; they get pretty damn chilly when you’re standing by the road for eight hours in an unrelenting, cold wind. But standing there, you have time to absorb the vibrancy of life around you and realize the deserts are not barren at all.

There is something enlightening about immersing yourself in a new environment. You experience it on both conscious and subliminal levels, so you retain more than an academic knowledge of the ecological shifts when climate change comes. You feel the changes tug at emotional and spiritual bonds you share with the changing ecosystems.

Now and Then

We traversed various paths across the Colorado River basin during our wanderings. At that time, Lake Mead and Lake Powell were famous as vacation destinations for the wealthy and middle class alike. They were man-made wonders taming the environment and driving the development of agricultural projects and urban expansion. Now they are infamous for their depleted water levels, which evoke water rationing and threaten the future of 40 million people. Climate change has reduced precipitation in the basin, ushering in an era of hotter and dryer climate for the American Southwest. To be sure, the deserts will survive, but whether humans play a part in future desert ecosystems remains questionable.

Our westward journey halted at the Pacific Ocean, and fate dropped us in a pseudo commune in the heart of a redwood forest near Santa Cruz — a collection of tepees, yurts, homes, and trailers. Haight-Ashbury was not dead, merely relocated. The experience of seeing those redwood trees for the first time left me without words. Sunlight filtered through a magnificent array of bark cover columns each morning, letting me believe we were in some sort of fantasy landscape.

Several years ago, I toured the California coast and confirmed the redwood forests were alive and thriving in many areas. It seems these trees delight in the extra carbon dioxide we have been so busily pumping into the atmosphere. But civilization and urban sprawl are both encroaching on the edges of these forests and stressing the local ecosystems they support.

After a lengthy stint on the coast, we headed inland and spent time camping beneath the canopy of sequoia forests high in the Sierra Nevada. This unique ecosystem was every bit as magnificent as the redwood forests, but sadly, many of the trees we previously wandered through disappeared during the 2021 fire season.

The Whole is Greater Than the Parts

Farmers on the flood plains of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers understand how climate change brings wetter weather and leaves their crops rotting in the ground more often. The devastation of West Coast fires and a punishing megadrought seem far away and perhaps even unrelated.

Ranchers and farmers in the high plains understand the risks they face as the regional Ogallala aquifer depletes from increasing demand and less precipitation. Las Vegas and Phoenix residents fret about new water restrictions. The dry, parched reality of climate change in the American West leaves little time to ponder the plight of Miami residents as they face rising seas and constant flooding.

When your life connects with a single ecosystem, you tend to view climate change only in terms of your local environment. It is easy to lose sight of how all the trials and tribulations of a changing climate and a warmer Earth are connected. California burns as Bangladesh disappears below the ocean surface. The USA Mid West floods as Lake Mead turns into a puddle.

Climate change is global and getting the world’s countries to face the challenge collectively is like herding cats. All politics is local, and unfortunately, climate change is also viewed in terms of local solutions. Who cares about massive forest fires in Siberia when you need water for your crops. But all of these events are connected. We have collectively ignored the problem for many years, but more local communities now find themselves on the cutting edge of climate change.

Let’s expand our ecosystem awareness and understand the fundamental reality of living on a planet whose biosphere is a single connected ecosystem. Changes in one local ecosystem always mean adjustments somewhere else. It’s a reality we can’t ignore forever.

Related Reads:

Shifting Weather Patterns and More Rain (by WM House; ArcheanWeb)

The Ogallala Aquifer, Sustaining Life (by WM House; Medium)

Earth, the Largest Ecosystem (by WM House; Medium)

Before the Fire (by WM House; Medium)

More from ArcheanWeb:

ArcheanWeb: Exploring the environment, art, science, and more

ArcheanArt: Innovative digital art

ArcheanWeb On Medium:

EarthSphere Publication — Science and the environment

Dropstone Publication — Stories, life observations, art, and more


Reflections on life’s journey and thoughts on the Tao Te Ching — In Search of a Path

A fictional adventure about the origins of life — The Strings of Life

Stories in progress on WattPad

William House
William is an earth scientist and writer with an interest in providing the science "backstory" for breaking environmental, earth science, and climate change news.