| Feb 02, 2006

Feature Article - February 2, 2006

Feature Article

February 2, 2006

Discovering Natural Processes: beauty in nature's ways

book review by Jeff Green

It’s rare that a coffee table book features pictures of deer droppings, skulls of dead animals and worms boring into rotten wood, but along with idyllic landscape photography, these are some of the images that are included in a new book by ecologist Gray Merriam and photographer Jeff Amos.

The book is made up of series of photographs punctuated by several short chapters on related topics. Readers of the Frontenac News are no doubt familiar with Gray Merriam’s style of writing. In “Discovering Natural Processes” he uses more scientific terminology than in the short articles he publishes in the News, but the book is anything but a dry scientific treatise. It was developed in order to broaden the understanding of natural processes for the general public, as is explained in the opening sentence.


“We want to guide you on a journey of discovery. We want to help you to discover the beauty and the meaning of natural processes on your terms, no matter what your background.”

Merriam employs day-to-day language. He talks, for example, about how different species of plants and animals are able to “make their living” by drawing nutrients from different habitats.

The book expands on the now familiar concept that all things in nature are inter-related so that we must take an ecosystem-based approach as we consider the impacts of human behaviour on what we broadly call ‘the environment’. It starts by discussing the increasingly important role the Canadian Shield plays in maintaining global carbon levels.

“As tropical forests are degraded the value of the Shield to the planet increases. The huge area of the Canadian Shield and ecological zones north of it make one of the largest contributions to the total of all ecologically productive areas on earth.”

The chapter on “Green Magic” points to the primary role plants play in making life on earth possible.

“For practical folks, the magic in ‘Green Magic’ is that we have never been able to do it; only green plants can. For students of thermodynamics, it is magical because plants have the unique ability to capture the very small packets of light energy called photons and accumulate them in blocks of energy big enough to make energy-rich chemical bonds in carbon compounds such as sugars. … Without energy captured by green plants, all living things would be without power. There would be no vital forces anywhere. Green magic indeed!”

In the subsequent chapter, “Restocking: decomposition and nutrient recycling”, the processes which need to be in place in order for the land to continually generate enough nutrients for Green Magic to take place is described, and the role played by species ranging from insects to large carnivores is outlined.

Chapters on habitat, biodiversity and water follow. Each chapter builds on the information in previous chapters, and fosters a deepening sense of wonder at how diverse and complex natural processes are, and how they vary according to climactic and geological factors.

There is a two-fold impact from reading Discovering Natural Processes and allowing the rich black and white photographs to bring a poetic impulse to the more prosaic narrative. Firstly, one is filled with a sense of wonder at the intricate beauty, economy, and inherent logic of natural processes. Secondly one feels a deepening concern about the impact of short-sighted human development on a vulnerable ecological system that has developed over a very long period of time.

The long-term health of the planet is not really at issue. The rocks contain the stuff of life. They will be able to replenish the earth, in time, no matter what humans do to the planet. However, if the workings of ‘Green Magic’ are so disrupted by human activity that the planet becomes unliveable for humans and other species, it could take a very long time for the earth to re-establish itself.

Gray Merriam and Jeff Amos have plans for a second book, Special Places, which will present images from a selection of places from each of Canada’s different ecological zones.

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