I Actually Love How We Change The Land

This lake is a lie

Every Fall and Spring I participate in this really cool program, Meaning Watershed Education Experience (MWEE for short). Each program is slightly different, catering to the needs and resources of the specific area, but they are generally geared towards students in 6th-8th grade.

The MWEEs that I do divide the kids up into different rotating stations. In one, they learn about the history of the particular stream or lake that are at and the surrounding region (Land use). In Biodiversity, they count and sort the number of different species they find. For Water Chemistry, they test the chemistry of the water (shocking, I know). In the most popular station they get to catch fun critters from the river (Macros).

Not surprisingly, the Macros station is the most popular to teach, and the Land Use/Water Chemistry stations are the least popular. I often tell people that land use is my favorite and they laugh because it’s so boring.

But here’s the thing: I really love it. It’s my favorite station and I teach it with gusto!

I feel like society, in general, has a belief that there is some tangible divide between cities and the country. People understand pollution, of course, but I get the impression that it’s more like man is intruding upon nature, and this intrusion is unusual and therefore noteworthy.

I feel that few people ever really stop to think about the long term effects we humans have on the environment. Not the big oil spills, but the little effects that can tweak so much of what we see and experience.

This impact is what I find to be utterly fascinating.

Do We Notice The Impact?

Something most people in Virginia don’t know is that only two lakes in the state are natural, therefore all of the lakes where I live and teach are manmade.

I always start my land use section with two aerial photos of our location. One from 1934 with no lake and one from 1980, that has a lake.

I ask the students what else has changed in the photo, and eventually they recognize that new houses and roads have been built, replacing the farm land.

After we discuss reasons for building the lake, talk about buffer zones, and look for signs of erosion, I ask the kids to to look for any signs of “human development or land use”.

I occasionally get this wise guy response:

“The lake.”

And everyone laughs, but he’s right.

The last time I taught this, I had a parent argue with me over it, stating, “Well it looks very natural to me.” This was after we had looked at those aerial photos.

I find it interesting that, because there are trees and plants, it was considered natural to the parent, even though many of the plants and animals were not native to the region, and the lake itself was built as a result of our land development.

The idea that only a building can be considered human development, but lawns and man-made lakes are “natural” is frankly a bit odd to me.

I live on the East Coast in the US, which at one time was a massive forest. Where I live was also once rural farmland, and is now built up with suburbs and cities. And yet people talk about the rural regions of Virginia as if they are natural, unaffected or unchanged by human beings (unless we talk about pollution, of course).

Yet the East Coast has been cultivated for centuries, long before Europeans settled here.

When we recognize how we have changed nature, we see our own history reflected in the natural world. Nature tends to hide evidence of our past, unless, of course, you know what to look for.

The idea that all our effects are inherently negative is something I also disagree with. The lakes we have built certainly had ecological impacts, but they do support a lot of wildlife. For instance, two eagles nest annually at a local lake and we can see the chicks with a spotting scope.

Of course humans have a negative impact as well. The increase in impervious surfaces (roads, rooftops) has led to an increase in erosion. This is another way we shape the land longterm, that people forget about because it’s not instant or intentional.

So I agree that lake I teach at is a sign of “human development”. I also think that it’s not a bad idea for humans to build a lake to offset run-off and erosion, nor is it a bad idea to leave areas for wildlife near our communities.  I just wish more people were aware of the way we have changed even the “natural” world.

Final Thoughts

The idea that humans are unique because they shape the land is something I deeply disagree with. As Adolf Leopold and many others have noted, animals have the ability to dramatically shape landscapes. We certainly do it at a larger scale, but the very act of shaping the land isn’t unique.

The different between us and animals is we now have the power to understand and decide what kind of impact we want to have.


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  1. Pingback: Environmental History Anyone? – Diving With Sharks

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