Mother Nature Doesn't Negotiate
Updated: Jan 17
I’m a lazy gardener. “Gardener” is not even the correct term for what I do, which is mostly puttering. I check on plants to see how they’re doing and tend to the ones that need a little care. I find a bare spot and add a plant or two. I look for signs of new creatures and wonder what I can change in the yard to meet their needs. Mostly, it’s all an excuse to be outside and reconnect with nature.
My laissez faire yard care results in plants getting a bit unruly before I weed, trim, or mow. When I finally get to these tasks, I often find surprises. While weeding a flower bed, I discovered an oak sapling planted by a squirrel. I transplanted it into the yard, and now the tree is taller than me. Another time I found native horseherb overtaking bare soil under trees, where it’s difficult to get anything to grow. I now use horseherb as a ground cover that doesn’t need watering. When I wait and watch, my yard tells me what will work in it. These volunteer plants, which grow on their own as part of the yard’s natural system, consistently thrive and do better than the plants I buy.
My yard regular reminds me that natural systems bring their own wisdom to their relationship with us. It’s something I learned as a child, when my escape was sitting in our yard’s maple tree and observing the world. If I really needed to get away, I wandered and studied the abandoned farmland behind our house. I also camped and hiked with my family and scouts. All of it taught me to observe, respect, and adjust to nature for my own safety and well-being. There was no negotiation with Mother Nature. I either played by her rules, or I suffered the consequences.
I forgot this knowledge when I went to engineering school. There, and in my early years as a water resources engineer, I was steeped in the American ethos of conquering nature and bending it to our will. Its roots are in the colonial conquest of North America and was made possible by the industrial age. If a river didn’t do what we wanted, we straightened it and placed it within levees. If the land was too arid to support agriculture and cities, we built dams and diverted water from rivers for our use. In other words, we “reclaimed” the land from being “useless” to us, which is how the Bureau of Reclamation got its name. Laws were passed to grant rights of use for the water captured by these projects. In the process, both Native Americans and the natural systems on which they relied for sustenance suffered.
When I started my career as a woman engineer, I was happy just to get a job. All my effort went into working hard and trying to be accepted. But as time went on, I started to wonder about the projects I was designing and constructing. The minute a project was finished, Mother Nature went to work taking it back. Every water structure must be inspected, maintained, and repaired in perpetuity, or natural systems will compromise it. Even when maintained, some projects are inadequate when storms occur that are larger than the one for which they were designed. In dry years, water rights fail because they were granted based on a limited amount of flow data that didn’t represent the full life of the river. Now climate change exacerbates all these problems.
Too often, I hear us try to solve these water and other environmental problems by returning to the same ethos that got us here. We look for the right technology to “conquer” the problem. Maybe it’s time we try something different.
Everything we design and build is limited by our collective knowledge, which comes from a time period much shorter than the time over which natural systems developed. Natural systems operate according to a set of rules (e.g., water flows downhill) that people for ages sought to learn and understand. There was a time when people seemed to know these rules better than we do today. By observing and understanding the ways of a river, people could adapt their lives to it. The river in turn provided water to drink, spring floods to make crops grow, fish to eat, and a means of transportation. People lived where waterways supported them. They didn’t have the option of changing the river to what they wanted it to be, so they adjusted their lives to river.
For a time, technology enabled us to believe we could overcome natural limits. We developed a false sense of being in control by making rivers do our bidding. We artificially exceeded the carrying capacity of western lands. We’re now experiencing more droughts, water shortages, wildfires, and floods. Climate change is reminding us that Mother Nature doesn’t negotiate.
I once heard Dr. Jennifer Trivedi, a disaster anthropologist, say there is “no such thing as natural disasters.” Natural events are just that – natural. They are hazards for us to be aware of, but they only become disasters when the “hazards impact…people and the systems people have made.” Relying on technology to overcome natural systems is inherently vulnerable and unsustainable. It’s time for us to again observe, respect, and adjust to rivers and other natural systems.
I’m encouraged to see the engineering profession move in this direction. Last week I read about civil engineering students Gonzaga University who are mimicking beaver activity to restore a creek and decrease pollution in a lake. More cities are setting aside open space for the natural function of rivers, wetlands, and coastlines. I had the opportunity to work on a project that moved people out of a flood-prone area and created parkland, instead of constructing a project to control the water. For the times when constructed projects are necessary, there are now natural channel design methods based on studying rivers and designing the project to mimic a river’s natural function, working in relationship with the river, instead of conquering it. In doing so, the river’s wisdom becomes ours.
All of this gives me hope, but it relies on changing our ethos from colonial conquest to respectful collaboration with natural systems. It requires humility, accepting limits, and being able to say we’ve made mistakes and need to change our ways. People of faith call this confession and repentance. They also call it being in right relationship with our Creator and the community of creation in which we live. Our future well-being may depend on it.