Some Philosophy, a Few Autumn Photographs, and a Canal

i-e49d188afd52d3cc8fb0c23096d1f7eb-monochromecanal.jpgIs a place timeless? Is a hill the same hill after a hundred years, or a thousand? For instance, this black and white photograph on the right shows a canal along the Front Range. But how old is it? Does it matter? In many of the photographs I've compared lately, there have been striking or subtle differences appearing over time. This scene, however, has hardly changed in the past 150 years. Before then, there wasn't a canal here, nor a lake in the distance, but there weren't cameras around to capture the scene, either.

A few centuries back, we might have seen a herd of buffalo grazing along the marshes in the distance. The ridge would still exist, having been carved by incessant erosion along the Big Dry Creek floodplain. Turn back the clock further, and the mountains would disappear, to be replaced by an ocean shore. Even deeper into the past, another mountain range graced the landscape. We could keep looking back, until this scene was molten slag, an oxygen-deprived wasteland on an infant planet. Without the ridge, or even land to speak of, at least in any sense that we could be familiar with, was this still the same place?

If we were discussing a person, the answer would seem easier. After experiencing a lifetime of tumultuous changes, we remain ourselves, or so we assume. I don't claim to be a different Karmen than the baby in the picture I posted a few weeks back, even though I look rather different today.

I've seen the question appear a few times lately, here at ScienceBlogs. Janet's Sprogs, for instance, have been discussing whether or not Pokemon (and people) retain their individuality throughout metamorphosis. Meanwhile, a three-month-old post from Carl Zimmer's Loom recently found its way on to our top five list, about the effects of parasites, like Toxoplasma, on personality. His post includes the following question: "Do viruses, intestinal worms, and other pathogens that can linger in the body for decades have their own influence on human personality?" This begs the question: are we "ourselves" as a result of the subtle changes and influences on our beings? Can science even give us a solid answer, or only refine the questions? Jonah Lehrer posed this question recently, at The Frontal Cortex. Here and here, he argues that we may never really understand what makes us individuals, at least from a scientific perspective.

So, while we are certain that we are who we are, science, at this point, is unable to tell us exactly how. Does the same hold true for the canal on the ridge? We can explain how it came to be; we could reconstruct the geologic history of the ridge, or we could go into the details of the canal construction. (In a sense, I already have-this is the Church Ditch, as it wraps around Standley Lake-the heart of my current series.) But would these histories tell us if this was the same place, be it 1906 or 2006? Would it tell us if the place, like a person, has some enduring spirit? And most importantly, what impact does the presence of humanity have on that elusive spirit?


Humans have, without a doubt, changed the landscape. If we take a look along the canal today, in the picture above, we can see paved trails, a home and a car (my car, actually, but unfortunately, not my home.) Some of the changes seem more drastic than others. We've learned that the lumber industry and the automobile industry have significant impacts on the environment. Even though we can only see a single house and a single car in the picture above, we're most likely aware there are some 700 million other cars around the world and probably about as many houses. The canal itself, mimicking a small stream, seems to make less of an impact. Is the canal more natural than other human creations, then?

If we look downstream a short distance, the canal might seem less natural. Here, the ditch runs into the tall ridge overlooking Standley Lake, cutting deeply against the natural grade. Here, the water has essentially been forced to flow uphill:


In theory, it doesn't sound natural-perhaps it even sounds supernatural. In practice, however, it is a simple and necessary irrigation technique. Cutting across the grade allows water to be transported from one river basin (Clear Creek) into another (Big Dry Creek) to supply water to an otherwise dry area. This not only irrigates farms and ranchland, as was originally intended, but also supplies drinking water to a number of suburban communities (including mine.) We couldn't survive without it. It is a part of our habitat. If it isn't natural, then neither are we.

Let's return to the original "timeless" image we saw at the beginning. (I'll confess now, it was taken a few days ago.) With a little color and detail, we can see a few signs of humanity, beyond the canal. (Click the image for a larger version.) More houses are scattered about, sandwiched between the lake and Rocky Flats beyond. As we'll see in the next few parts of the series, we've done more to this land than build houses and canals, although it doesn't show from this distance:


We could look at those distant signs of human technology (and will, another day,) but we would look past other impacts in the land. Right under our noses, so to speak, the land is being transformed. Not just by us. In the trees on the island, nestled in the lake in the distance, eagles have collected scrap wood, assembling condos in the trees, with a view that human developers would sell their souls for. On the hill in the foreground, prairie dogs have built vast networks of tunnels and roads, their homes possibly outnumbering ours. Nearby, the grasses dig into the ancient clay, their roots pushing loose crumbling fragments, digested by worms, and further processed by bacteria and chemical changes. Even the seasons take their toll, the constant attacks, by rain and wind, building and breaking the land.

So why is it, when we look at our homes, and the impacts we have on the land around us, we claim it is so unnatural? Why must we put ourselves on some sort of spectrum, at one end seeing human construction as an affront to Mother Nature, and the other end seeing the land as our divine right, to be used up at our leisure?

Are we trying to avoid something? Perhaps it is too frightening to admit... if we humans, and our constructs, are natural, then we are also subject to the laws of nature. We can be selected. But we can also adapt. The land around us is our habitat-it adapts to us, and we adapt to it. Just as we, as individuals, are shaped by countless influences, so is the land around us. Perhaps there is some essence to each of us that science cannot explain-call it an existing sum of parts, call it a spirit, or whatever. Perhaps the other organisms and parts of our habitat each have the same essence. Perhaps we, along with the canal and the grasses and the hills and the eagles, are but small influences on some greater sum, the habitat itself, or something even larger. Perhaps we, and that which we create, are natural parts of this beautiful, strange, cruel world. Must we either arrogantly struggle to conquer it or apathetically abstain from existing within it?

All photos taken by the author.

PS... in my philosophical musings, I've gotten a little behind on my schedule. Look for the "Friday" Fractal coming later this weekend, and the next Church Ranch chapter soon. My apologies for the delay.

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Inspiring again, Karmen. And thank you again for the post. Ben

Interesting questions you have posed, weaved amongst your Front Range stories, here. And a hot topic these days, to be sure. Are we being too self-conscious about our (human activity) impact on the environment? Or are we not heeding the consequences of our actions enough? More deep, heavy stuff, indeed. Well done.

I agree with your main point, that human effects are seen as "unnatural" in ways that effects of other species are not. Other examples of non-human effects: elephants knock down trees, creating clearings in jungles. Elimination of wolves causes herbivore (elk and deer) populations to expand, influencing vegetation and erosion. These are all characterized as "natural". The exemption of humans from similar consideration seems nothing more than anthropocentric bias.

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