Ecosystems

“I tell you, country clubs and cemeteries are the biggest wasters of prime real estate.” So says Rodney Dangerfield’s character, an obnoxious land baron, in the 1980 movie Caddyshack.

I haven’t really thought too much about cemeteries, but I have mixed feelings about country clubs.

I live in a house that borders Gardiner’s Bay Country Club, and I love that I can look up from my desk out my window at the beautiful wide-open fairways. In the early spring it’s particularly stunning. The wide expanses of green grass, the rolling landscape, and the bay just beyond.

Right now as I write this, the golf course is mostly brown, except for the greens, which are, well, green. As I understand it, the greens are the only sections that are allowed to be watered. The rest of the grass has died because of the drought.

But right next to the golf course I see a wooded area that doesn’t seem to be affected by the drought at all. The tall trees with their robust root systems draw water from deep within the ground. And those trees, in turn, shade the smaller forms of vegetation, protecting the bushes and plants from the hot sun. The fallen leaves decay, fertilizing the soil. It is a complex system in contrast to the simple grass fairways, and much better able to weather environmental stress.

It makes me think of something I learned about ecology back in college: Lawns are an artificially immature ecosystem. That is why they are so prone to infestation by weeds and pests, and why they will die if we don’t water them. I remember this neighbor we had when I was growing up in Setauket who would lay down new sod every spring. They had the best looking lawn in the neighborhood, but it couldn’t even survive a single year on its own.

Why am I talking about lawns and golf courses? This idea of an artificially immature ecosystem interests me, especially as a metaphor for certain parts of our lives.

For example, how many artificially immature relationships do we have in our lives? I’m not talking about friends that you goof around or act “immaturely” with. I’m talking about relationships that are artificially simplistic and polite. Relationships where not rocking the boat is more important than authentic honesty, respect, and trust. These relationships tend to be quite fragile, don’t they? A sudden infestation of stress and there is an explosion of anger and negative communication that can seriously harm–or sometimes even kill–the relationship. Or a long drought of contact and the relationship dies of inactivity.

What about other artificially immature situations in your life? Is your job, what you spend a large majority of your waking life doing and thinking about, is it rooted in a sense of life purpose, or is it just something you do? If it’s the latter, then you probably find yourself wanting something more, don’t you? Maybe you’ve changed jobs often, maybe you’ve even changed careers often. Or maybe you’ve been at the same job for a long time but you fantasize about what you would do if (if I had more money, more education, more opportunity), or what you will do when (when the kids grow up, when I retire, when the summer comes).

Or what about the artificially immature state of your health and well-being? Does the food you eat contain the nutrients necessary for you to thrive, or are you simply consuming empty calories that barely maintain life (and then only with the help of pharmaceuticals, vaccines, and multi-vitamins). What about your mental health? Are you feeding your mind with the wisdom of human experience composed of thousands of years and billions of people? Or are you artificially restricting your experience to those who think the same way you think, believe the things that you believe, and reinforce your subjective view of the world? If so, your experience of life is as fragile as the lawn. It might comfort you to look out the window and see that nice simple empty green space, but it’s artificial and will not last. At best you will find yourself constantly fighting to keep it that way; at worst it will dry up, becoming a dead plot of dust.

Now what sets a mature ecosystem like a forest apart from an immature ecosystem like a golf course or lawn? The mature ecosystem is more complex. It is home to a diverse collection of plants and animals. But that diversity does not imply division; each of the different species plays a part in the healthy functioning of the system. Maturity, it seems, is characterized by a complex balance of diversity and commonality.

By that standard, how “mature” is our political system, for example. Doesn’t it seem overly simplistic to divide our diverse collection of ideas, policies, and values into only two categories? And how well has this served us given that more than half of all eligible voters don’t even vote? Think about all the resources, both time and money, that are wasted trying to maintain this duality–attack ads, talk radio, political pundits, letters to the editor–a duality that represents less than half of us! We tend to define the political landscape by what divides us, when the reality is that there is so much more that unites us. The same is true of religion. People forget that Muslims, Jews, and Christians all share the Old Testament. Yes, there are important differences between these religions, but there’s quite a bit of common ground, too.

What’s the answer? I don’t know. I won’t pretend I can solve society’s problems in 1000 words. But maybe a little piece of the solution is for each of us to focus on the artificially immature parts of our own lives. I believe Gandhi had it right when he said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

©2005 Curtis G. Schmitt

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