Nature cringes from man's lust for fuel

ON THE BAY

September 10, 1994|By TOM HORTON

There is a place, a sanctuary, a refuge where I sometimes go, on a tidal creek near home, to drift in a canoe, greenwalled by wild rice and swamp maples from all sight and sound of humanity.

It is not the quiet and solitude that renew me there so much as the power -- all-encompassing, throbbing; though at first you might scarcely notice.

But listen. Wings whir -- the vanguard of blackbirds, flown clear from New England to stoke their little engines with a summer's-worth of seed production from the fecund marsh. And look. An osprey has just swooped, elegantly plucking a big, glistening perch from the shallows.

These are common events on the creek; also high energy events as spectacular, in their way, as lightning bolts.

The white perch, a slow grower, has spent perhaps a decade achieving its present pound or so of flesh by capturing the nourishment in hundreds of pounds of lesser fish. Those perch-prey in turn have embodied the food energy in thousands of pounds of barely visible zooplankton; which in their turn captured the energy from tens, or hundreds of thousands of pounds of algae.

The algae represent the absorption of million upon million of BTUs of sunlight falling on the water, and of tons of nutrients washed by rain from the 64,000 square mile watershed of the bay, delivered by the currents of some 40 river systems that feed the estuary-- and also feed the marshes whose seeds fuel the peregrinations of blackbirds.

If you could see, in a single burst, the energy that must be thus distilled to support a single osprey -- or a falcon felling a marsh-fattened blackbird -- it would strike you blind. Energy is both the source and limit of all the planet's activities, and learning its language can afford delightful new ways of seeing the familiar.

What is a blazing campfire but centuries of sunlight, captured by millions of oak leaves, banked in cylinders of cellulose, now liberated in a few hours for our pleasure?

The spring spawning returns of bay shad and herring and rockfish complete an elegant circuit. The harvested nutritional energy of a year in the oceans is thereby injected as sperm and egg into every crevice of the winter-worn estuary -- just as its rivers swell with freshets, sweeping calories downstream to stoke the young life.

The energy language is also useful -- often sobering -- as a common denominator between the works of nature and humans. Reduced to the calories and BTUs involved in their making and maintenance, we can more meaningfully compare concrete and rice marshes, ospreys and aircraft. A poet who wrote from a hut on the shore of another estuary captured the idea: The force that through the green fuse drives the flower/drives my green age; But the next lines in Dylan Thomas's poem saw the dark potential of energy in modern forms, as something so concentrated that it: blasts the roots of trees/Is my destroyer.

Indeed, we modern humans seem veritable Olympians, gods on the energy scale. Even the blinding energy, the massive biotic production embodied by the swooping osprey is only enough to sustain a single bird, and perhaps its mate and chicks, and only for a few hours before it must hunt again, or rapidly cease to exist. Compare that to me in my petroleum-based plastic canoe, beneficiary of a society so sopping rich in energy that I can afford to spend whole days in nothing more productive than watching ospreys fish.

I have excess energy enough at my disposal to make ice to cool my thermos of tea. The beef in my sandwich comes from an agribusiness that uses a dozen gallons of oil just to get a pound of protein to market.

An ecologist conversant in the energy language once said you could pretty well describe the world in terms of "balls of energy, chasing other balls of energy to make more of themselves." Ospreys chasing perch, falcons knocking off blackbirds, Rockefellers investing in nuclear power, Saudis pumping oil. It tempted me to conclude that it is not just opposed thumbs and large forebrains that separate us from the animals -- we've also got bigger balls of energy. Bigger ones, in fact, than the planet ever knew until a few centuries ago. Few events in our species' history have been more transforming than tapping earth's buried coal, oil and natural gas -- all the compressed and distilled products of sunlight that fell for countless eons on prehistoric vegetation.

It has made us rich and powerful -- also wasteful and a tad drunk, careless of the side effects of so much power. In recent decades, for example, increased energy, flowing to the bay from fertilizers and human sewage, favored algae floating near the surface over rooted grasses that once covered much of the bottom. Almost without noticing, easily as a cat flips a mouse, and with the merest residues from our modern power trip, we very nearly flipped the ecosystem from bottom to top.

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