Turning nature loose in the yard Integrity: Mowers, chain saws, leaf blowers and other implements are anathema to truly natural plots those with scraggly shrubs where wildlife abounds.

On the Bay

March 15, 1996|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

HERE AT THE CORNER of Oak Ridge and Acorn streets, outpost of the "just say no" method of lawn care, I'm making my spring contribution to the continued order and integrity of the universe.

Less enlightened neighbors, sharpening their chain saws and revving their leaf blowers, say they see nothing so grand in my planting on an already forested lot a few scraggly native shrubs and low trees redbud and serviceberry, and perhaps some spicebush and blueberry.

They are even less impressed with all the little loblolly pines, now coming up nicely where I haven't raked or burned or mulched the oak leaves for years.

They mutter darkly about the expanding thicket in one backyard corner, where fallen limbs get piled atop the carcasses of several Christmases' worth of cast-out conifers, to the delight of rabbits.

My shaggy and disheveled lot here in Hebron bespeaks no organization, only sloth, to the riding mower and turf care contingent, who could not be more mistaken in equating manicured, emerald lawn scapes with orderliness.

Not that order is bad. Nature in fact is virtually addicted to it, and without it the universe as we know it would long ago have reverted to some formless miasma.

That is because of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, often expressed as, "You can't get something for nothing."

More formally, it says every time we transform energy into work, as in burning gasoline to propel a car, there is a penalty some of that energy is lost, irretrievably, as waste heat and pollution.

Together with the First Law, which states that you can't increase the total supply of energy, it means the universe inexorably is moving toward a state of decay, dissipation, disaggregation not running out of energy, which can be neither created nor destroyed, but running out of energy in any usable, accessible form.

(Think, for example, of water running down a hill, used to turn a mill wheel. Once it's at sea level, it's the same water, but no longer usable for work. You could pump it back up, but that would take more energy.)

It's a grim law, of which there is no repeal; but undoubtedly some pretty fine reprieves, which lie in a universal tendency for life to organize itself in ways that maximize and retain precious energy.

A whole new science, known loosely as "complexity," has in recent years arisen to probe this seeming compulsion of life to self-organize in the face of decay, on scales from atoms forming molecules, to evolution's march toward today's fantastically diverse ecosystems, starting from the absolutely improbable formation of the first simple cells 4 billion years ago.

Complexity science gets into issues that may seem rather removed from the corner of Oak Ridge and Acorn ("Why is there something, rather than nothing?").

But perhaps not. Perhaps it's all part of life trying to formulate an answer to the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

I think of what I do with the yard as anything but disorderly. In

planting more bushes of varying heights beneath my tall oaks and pines, I'm adding more levels to the yard, which in turn provide a greater variety of niches for the birds and insects that prefer one part of the forest over another.

In effect, I'm complicating my yard, adding to its structure. And structure begins, in a modest way, to get at the more cosmic notions of complexity theory.

Think of the coral reef and the rain-forest canopy both places of incredible species richness as extraordinary expressions of structure in nature.

Visit a place like Assateague Island, and observe how the roiling, unagglomerated energies of surf and sand and wind somehow structure themselves into beach and dune and forest and marsh.

Notice the bends in a creek or river where sediment collects and marshes sprout to form some of earth's most productive ecosystems. This too is structure, and seems to be nature's way.

A river anywhere on earth almost never runs straight for more than 15 times its width before forming a bend. A ditch, by comparison, may seem more orderly; but it is only more neat, and in fact is a terrible insult to what life is about.

Similarly, my yard, while it is not so neat and straightforward- looking as a lawn, is actually doing a lot better job of organizing and retaining the energies of rain and sun.

It requires virtually none of the lawn's annual fertilizer, which is to say no additional transformation of energy into work that in turn contributes to the universal tendency toward running down (recall the Second Law).

Nor does my yard transform gasoline and electricity into waste heat at anywhere near the rate of the picture-perfect lawn.

An "orderly" lawn, in other words, contributes less to true order than does the deshabille of my wood lot.

There is far more to structure and the remarkable tendency of life to create ever more of it than even wild nature can encompass.

Complexity theory's inquiries extend to similar tendencies of humans always to form into families and communities and societies; for traders to form markets and economies.

Certainly there is a lot to think about this spring, planting a few more bushes on the corner of Oak Ridge and Acorn.

Pub Date: 3/15/96

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