Yesterday I was listening to Erle Ellis of the Department of Geography and Environmental Systems, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, speaking about “The Ancient Anthropogenic Landscapes and the Emergence of the Anthropocene”  as part of the Weston Roundtable Series at UW-Madison. Check out a you tube on his research here.

I’ve been learning more and more about the Anthropocene.  It is a concept to describe the most recent period of time on earth in which human activities have begun to have an impact on global ecosystems.  Traditionally, ecologists have studied biomes.  But what we are really dealing with  are what Ellis calls anthromes – biospheres reshaped by human systems.

According to Ellis, it started sooner than you might think.  He says we began to change the atmosphere 5,000 years ago.  True there were not as many of us then, but because there was so much land available, people were very relaxed about practicing a kind of slash and burn agriculture that could transform a lot of ground very quickly.

Currently Wildlands only exist in places where people have decided not to use the land – usually because it is too dry or cold to use efficiently.  These areas are down to 23% of the earth’s terrestrial surface, and most of them are places where you would not really want to hang out.  40% of the world’s lands are being for agriculture and residence and.  37% are what Ellis calls Novel Ecosystems, which means little bits of natural systems embedded into human cultivation.  They exist along a spectrum of degradation/ recovery depending on their circumstances.

Erle Ellis standing in front of a little bits of natural systems embedded into human cultivation.

Ellis said most ecologists prefer to study the small preserves of “pristine” Wildlands, but he is interested in the Novel Ecosystems.  “We’ve altered the biosphere irreversibly.  We have a human system into which nature is embedded – many of them in places like China are more than 300 years old,” he said.  “They matter.”

It reminds me of what I learned last year at the Midwest Organic Farming Conference when Jeff Moyer, Director of Farm Operations at Rodale Farm talked about the importance of ecological edges.  I have heard many people come at this same concept of edges from different angles, but most of them say edges are good.  The edge between woods and grassland, the shore of a stream or pond.  These are vital places.

My own 44 acres is interlaced with interfaces between many different micro-ecosystems.  It’s not just a random mish mosh.  It’s simply one small example of what humans do, according to Ellis.  For better or worse, he says, “we create a complex anthromosaic landscape wherever we can.  We need to understand it and manage it.”

I’m on board.  Doug and I didn’t quite realize what we were taking on when we signed papers and traded money for our 44 acres.   But we are learning everything we can and trying to preserve and encourage the biodiversity that is surviving there.

One more case of Thinking Globally, and Acting Locally.

2 replies

  1. Thanks, Lorijo.
    Yes, I had some interesting revelations while listening to that talk. I was thinking about how we equate nature with rugged. That’s because we have sat on all the nature that wasn’t rugged.
    Managing those little bits of “nature” embedded into our agri-industrial landscape seems more important than ever.

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