Essay About Mother Nature News

To live in Vermont is to be smothered by nature’s beauty on a daily basis. Everywhere you look is another peaceful pond, another shimmering lake or emerald hill or misty field graced by a family of grazing deer. It’s almost obnoxious, like that one friend you have who’s so pretty, funny, smart and talented that you want to hate her stupid gorgeous face.

Immersed as we are in these exquisite pastoral gifts, Vermonters tend to forget that Mother Nature might be lovely, but moral she is not. She doesn’t love us or want what’s best for us. With one hand she giveth, and with the other she puncheth in the gut.

I know this only too well, because as well as the verdant wonderland that is Vermont, nature personally bestowed on me another of her special gifts: systemic lupus. Contrary to what the name suggests, lupus is not some totally rad werewolf disease. No, it’s actually kind of a drag, where your immune system constantly attacks your own body. Think of antibodies that dress up like teeny little Avon ladies to smooth-talk their way into your joints before upturning all the furniture and leaving an arthritic mess behind. Imagine white blood cells that create fake online dating profiles to lure innocent blood vessels, or lurk behind the heavy parlour drapes to leap out and ambush your kidneys. The result is a mess of pain, inflammation, fevers, fatigue and a never-ending litany of nasty surprises. My body is a haunted house and lupus is its poltergeist. Its all-natural poltergeist.

That’s why I just don’t buy the idea that ‘natural is best’. Your organic, gluten-free, sprouted ancient-grain bread is all-natural? That’s nice. My disease is all-natural too. My chronic pain, pleurisy and angry kidneys are all-natural, and my death would’ve been too, if I didn’t have access to the decidedly unnatural medications that allow me to lead a somewhat normal, comfortable life.

A few years ago, in a typical Vermont exchange, a chain smoker paused between drags to scold me for drinking a Diet Coke – or as she referred to it, ‘that poison’. I had the temerity to point out that she was smoking a cigarette. ‘They’re natural,’ she replied smugly, drawing my attention to the colourful bubble on the packaging that proclaimed her smokes were made with ‘100% Certified Organic Tobacco!’. Now, I’m aware that Diet Coke is not exactly a health tonic, but blithely calling it poison in a voice cracked with the tar of innumerable organic butts speaks to a certain cognitive bias. The soda was bad purely because it wasn’t natural, and the cigarettes were good purely because they were. I refrained from asking her if she enjoyed lots of other natural things, such as cobra bites, poison ivy, malaria, and diving headlong into 100 per cent organic molten lava.

It turns out that a certain counter-rationalist mindset isn’t just a condition afflicting Right-wing reactionaries. This fetish for all things au naturel reached a particularly feverish peak in these parts recently, when Vermonters banded together to implement a mandatory labelling law for GMOs (genetically-modified organisms) in 2014. It was like watching villagers festoon their homes with garlic and crucifixes to ward off vampires. The anti-GMO rhetoric had lulled for a time following passage of the bill, but began to intensify again last year in the months leading up to the labelling deadline. Despite overwhelming scientific evidence that GMOs are safe for human consumption, more than three-quarters of Vermonters supported the law, which stated that all food manufacturers had to slap a chunk of text on their packaging if their product contained any ingredients that were produced through genetic engineering. 

Not the Ye Olde Geneticke Engineereing that humans have practised for millennia, mind you, such as the selective breeding, crossbreeding and hybridisation of plants and animals. Rather, like all opponents of ‘Frankenfoods’, the supporters of the bill clearly differentiated between these timeworn agricultural methods and the modern form of genetic engineering that involves scientists isolating and manipulating individual genes to promote desired traits. If companies refused to comply with demands to label their GMOs, their Chewy Pork-Os and Mini Cheese Conundrums would no longer be sold on our pure, artisanal shelves.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not against continued research on GMOs. It’s vital to think about their impact on biodiversity and on the Earth’s delicate ecosystems. But these consequences are bad because they’re bad, not because GMOs themselves are unnatural. Being ‘anti-GMO’, period, is as good as being ‘anti-science’.

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As a lifelong horror-movie fan, I can admit that there is something classically terrifying about the idea of giant corporations manipulating genes. We all know what happens when EvilCorp sets up a secret lab on a remote island (experiments with weaponised shark-human hybrid cyborgs, obviously). DNA shouldn’t be tampered with, we say to ourselves. It’s intimate, fundamental – ‘us’; our purest essence laid bare, a potent link to our families and ancestors.

It doesn’t take much for us to mentally spool back in time, through gauzy montages of kooky historical costume changes, until we arrive at some untarnished, primordial Eve, squatting happily in front of her cook-fire, preparing some kale-and-wholegrain crêpes. Her rhythms are the rhythms of nature. She is at one with the natural world, not above or apart from it, and we are all connected to her across time, space and evolutionary leaps through this bio-mystical thread of the double-helix.

But wait; is that a rustling in the shrubberies behind her? Oh no, Eve, look out! It’s not a big cat or Eegah the Ripper; it’s so much worse. A pasty, bespectacled man in a white lab coat! With Big Ag embroidered on his breast pocket, and a huge stainless-steel syringe, glinting menacingly in the sun! Unaware of the danger, Eve nibbles on some açaí berries and assorted paleo-diet superfoods brought to her by obliging animal friends. The man squints down at his Ayn Rand day-planner where there are only two items in his to-do list:

2. $$$ PROFIT $$$

The man plunges his syringe into a nearby quinoa loaf that Eve prepared earlier, and waits while globules of glowing green liquid penetrate deep into the bread. The artificial code slices, strangles and scrambles the hearty DNA of the untainted baked good until all that’s left is a clammy, greyish Frankenloaf. It’s ready. He scampers back into the bushes and waits for Eve to notice what he left behind.

We blame every ailment on scary ‘new’ technologies, forgetting the mortality we left behind

Soon enough, Eve is examining the bread, turning it in her long, calloused fingers. Her inner goddess whispers that something is not right. But it is so like ‘real’ food! Curiosity overcomes her and she takes that first bite and, as she does so, her DNA unravels, then tangles and sproings up like when you run a scissor blade over a Christmas ribbon to make it super sproingy. Her animal friends run away; they no longer recognise her as one of them. She looks no different yet she is changed deep inside. Her cycles no longer sync with the Moon, Gaia will not return her calls, and she’s pretty sure she has a peanut allergy.

Okay, so some more minor version of this drama is playing out subconsciously in the minds of people who refuse to believe in GMO safety. But was nature as great as their idealised Earth Mother fantasies suggest? We tend to romanticise the past and blame every ailment on this crazy, modern lifestyle and scary ‘new’ technologies, forgetting the mortality and brutality we’ve left behind. If Eve was a real person living in the palaeolithic era, her life expectancy would have been only about 30 years, max. As she approached this ripe old age, she would likely have been prone to many of the same ailments that people today don’t typically start to suffer from until their 60s. She would have been fortunate to live that long, considering they obviously didn’t benefit from miraculous modern medical advances such as antibiotics, cancer treatments, obstetrics, surgery and Bioré pore strips. And yes, the abundance of nutritious food that we enjoy today is thanks, in part, to GM technologies. You know what makes my lupus feel better? When I can afford healthy food, all year round.

Week after week, as the labelling deadline approached, I’d marvel at the hundreds of scientifically unfounded anti-GMO lies that would be repeated in the comment sections of newspapers and other media outlets. As if Satan himself were coming to murder us right in the mouth with nightmarish, demon hybrid foods, and this law was the only thing that could keep him at bay.

Some of the claims came from the Vermont Right to Know GMOs website, which was the official hub of the bill’s news and activism activity. It contained a number of untrue or misleading claims including: 

  •  ‘important and unanswered questions about the healthfulness and safety of GE foods’
  •  ‘Independent studies continue to show that genetic engineering of food crops can lead to the production of toxins, allergens and other substances that may pose health-related risks’
  •  ‘The US Food and Drug Administration … leave the determination of these foods’ safety to the biotech companies that produce them’

I’d be frightened too, if this were my primary source of information. The allegation that biotech firms alone are responsible for safety-testing would be especially alarming – they must test the GMOs on the same island where they make the deadly sharkmen! Thankfully, it’s not true (at least as regards the GMOs). Yes, there’s plenty of research bankrolled by the likes of the agricultural EvilCorp that is Monsanto or other GM technology firms such as Syngenta, Bayer or DuPont. But there are also multiple independent studies performed on patented GMOs all over the world. So it’s not some kind of science-y petri-dish, Wild West situation; GM seeds have been tested at every stage of development and release for 30 years.

It was actually people like me who ruined his natural cider with our dumb ill health

The GMO labelling bill H.112 came into force in Vermont on 1 July 2016. Three weeks later, on 29 July 2016, the then president Barack Obama signed into federal law bill S.764, which required food manufacturers to label foods containing GMOs, but gave them numerous options to do so other than via the block of text that Vermont required. Scannable bar codes, QR codes, and 1-800 numbers are among the options. This federal law obviously superseded Vermont’s law, rendering it a very expensive few weeks for Vermont’s food producers. The state spent nearly $2 million defending the law, and Vermont retailers shelled out almost $5 million in their scramble to comply with it. Many of those stores are small mom-and-pop operations already struggling to compete with large chain retailers.

My boyfriend and I used to buy a share of a farmer’s harvest at the beginning of the season, from a local organic farm. We didn’t care so much about the organic part, we were just happy to support local agriculture. One afternoon, they had some cider for sale in addition to our usual weekly pick-up. It looked inviting, so I asked if it was pasteurised. ‘Yeah,’ the farmer grumbled, ‘I guess the FDA forces everyone to pasteurise it because someone claimed their kid got sick or something.’

As it happens, my lupus medications severely suppress my immune system, so I’m as high-risk for food poisoning as that pesky sick kid. For me and others like me, food poisoning can be deadly, and there have been plenty of outbreaks of E.coli associated with unpasteurised cider. But the farmer blamed the big evil US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for imposing this unnatural process on the natural cider. It made me sad and angry, but I didn’t bother to explain that it was actually people like me who ruined his cider with our dumb ill health, or that I was grateful to the FDA for looking out for me.

Nature can seem as inspiring, beautiful, strong and nurturing as a mother, but it would be foolish to believe that this ‘mother’ loves us. There’s no reason we can’t celebrate her glorious natural gifts while also appreciating the important ‘unnatural’ improvements our fellow humans have created. I wouldn’t – and couldn’t – have it any other way. Would you?

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Molly Hodgdon

is a writer and artist. She is a regular contributor for RiffTrax, and lives in Vermont.

  • Yet we have so disconnected ourselves from the natural world that it is easy—and often convenient—to forget that nature remains as giving as ever, even as it vanishes bit-by-bit.
  • The rise of technology and industry may have distanced us superficially from nature, but it has not changed our reliance on the natural world: most of what we use and consume on a daily basis remains the product of multitudes of interactions within nature, and many of those interactions are imperiled.
  • Beyond such physical goods, the natural world provides less tangible, but just as important, gifts in terms of beauty, art, and spirituality.

Rainforest leaves in Uganda. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

To read last year’s Earth Day article: World failing on every environmental issue: an op-ed for Earth Day.

There is no question that Earth has been a giving planet. Everything humans have needed to survive, and thrive, was provided by the natural world around us: food, water, medicine, materials for shelter, and even natural cycles such as climate and nutrients. Scientists have come to term such gifts ‘ecosystem services’, however the recognition of such services goes back thousands of years, and perhaps even farther if one accepts the caves paintings at Lascaux as evidence. Yet we have so disconnected ourselves from the natural world that it is easy—and often convenient—to forget that nature remains as giving as ever, even as it vanishes bit-by-bit. The rise of technology and industry may have distanced us superficially from nature, but it has not changed our reliance on the natural world: most of what we use and consume on a daily basis remains the product of multitudes of interactions within nature, and many of those interactions are imperiled. Beyond such physical goods, the natural world provides less tangible, but just as important, gifts in terms of beauty, art, and spirituality.

Earth Day seems as good a day as any to remind ourselves what nature gives us free-of-charge. Here then is a selective sampling of nature’s importance to our lives:

Tad lo waterfall in Laos. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Fresh water: There is no physical substance humans require more than freshwater: without water we can only survive a few hellish days. While pollution and overuse has threatened many of the world’s drinking water sources, nature has an old-fashioned solution, at least, to pollution. Healthy freshwater ecosystems—watersheds, wetlands, and forests—naturally clean pollution and toxins from water. Soils, microorganisms, and plant roots all play a role in filtering and recycling out pollutants with a price far cheaper than building a water filtration plant. According to research, the more biodiverse the ecosystem, the faster and more efficiently water is purified.

Pollination: Imagine trying to pollinate every apple blossom in an orchard: this is what nature does for us. Insects, birds, and even some mammals, pollinate the world’s plants, including much of human agriculture. Around 80% of the world’s plants require a different species to act as pollinator.

In agriculture, pollinators are required for everything from tomatoes to cocoa, and almonds to buckwheat, among hundreds of other crops. Globally, agricultural pollination has been estimated to be worth around $216 billion a year. However large such monetary estimates don’t include pollination for crops consumed by livestock, biofuels, ornamental flowers, or the massive importance of wild plant pollination.

Seed dispersal: Much like pollination, many of the world’s plants require other species to move their seeds from the parent plant to new sprouting ground. Seeds are dispersed by an incredibly wide-variety of players: birds, bats, rodents, megafauna like elephants and tapir, and even, researchers have recently discovered, fish. Seed dispersal is especially important for tropical forests where a majority of plants depend on animals to move.

Pest control: A recent study found that bats save US agriculture billions of dollars a year simply by doing what they do naturally: eating insects, many of which are potentially harmful to US crops.

Almost all agricultural pests have natural enemies, along with bats, these include birds, spiders, parasitic wasps and flies, fungi, and viral diseases. The loss, or even decline, of such pest-eating predators can have massive impacts on agriculture and ecosystems.

The world’s dung beetles have a dirty job, but someone has to do it: feeding exclusively on feces dung beetles play a big role in nutrient and soil recycling. This beetle was photographed in Malaysian Borneo. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Soil health: The ground under our feet matters more than we often admit. Healthy fertile soil provides optimal homes for plants, while participating in a number of natural cycles: from recycling nutrients to purifying water. Although soil is renewable, it is also sensitive to overuse and degradation often due to industrial agriculture, pollution, and fertilizers. Natural vegetation and quality soil also mitigates excessive erosion, which can have dramatic impacts from loss of agricultural land to coastlines simply disappearing into the sea.

Medicine: Nature is our greatest medicine cabinet: to date it has provided humankind with a multitude of life-saving medicines from quinine to aspirin, and from morphine to numerous cancer and HIV-fighting drugs. There is no question that additionally important medications—perhaps even miracle cures—lie untapped in the world’s ecosystems. In fact, researchers estimate that less than 1% of the world’s known species have been fully examined for their medicinal value. However the ecosystems that have yielded some of the world’s most important and promising drugs—such as rainforests, peat swamps, and coral reefs—are also among the most endangered. Preserving ecosystems and species today may benefit, or even save, millions of lives tomorrow.

Fisheries: Humankind has turned to the rivers and seas for food for at least 40,000 years but probably even longer. Today, amid concern of a global fishery collapse, more than a billion people depend on fish as their primary source of protein, many of them among the global poor. Fisheries also provide livelihoods, both directly and indirectly, for around half a billion. Coral reefs, mangroves, and seagrass ecosystems provide nurseries for the world’s fisheries, while the open ocean is used for migrating routes and hunting.

Even with the direct importance of the world’s fisheries for food, stewardship has been lacking, allowing many populations to drop precipitously and still permitting ecologically destructive fishing. While the world’s fisheries are primarily threatened by overfishing, including bycatch, marine pollution is also a major problem.

In the hugely imperiled tropical rainforests of Sumatra, diverse species of butterflies feed on ground nutrients. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Biodiversity and wildlife abundance: The argument to save the world’s wildlife has often come from an aesthetic point of view. Many conservationists have fought to save species simply because they like a particular species. This is often why more popularly known animals—tigers, elephants, rhinos—receive far more attention than less popular (although just as endangered) wildlife—for example, the redbelly egg frog, the smokey bat, or the bastard quiver tree. But beyond making the world a less lonely, less boring, and less beautiful place—admirable reasons in themselves—many of the services provided by biodiversity are similar to those provided by all of nature. Biodiversity produces food, fibers, wood products; it cleans water, controls agricultural pests, pollinates and dispersers the world plants; and provides recreation, such as birdwatching, gardening, diving, and ecotourism.

In the discussion of biodiversity, however, bioabundance is often ignored. A loss in bioabundance means that species are not just important for their diversity, but for their numbers. While Asian elephants may not go extinct any time soon, their depletion in forests means that the ecosystems lose the elephants’ special ecological talents such as spreading seeds and engineering micro-habitats. The drop in salmon populations in the US has caused the entire freshwater ecosystem to receive less nutrients every year (researchers estimate a nutrient-drop of over 90 percent); this means less food for people, less salmon for predators, and a less rich river overall. Declining nutrients also makes it impossible for the salmon to rebound to optimal populations, creating a vicious circle of bio-decline.

Climate regulation: The natural world helps regulate the Earth’s climate. Ecosystems such as rainforests, peatlands, and mangroves store significant amounts of carbon, while the ocean captures massive amounts of carbon through phytoplankton. While regulating greenhouse gases are imperative in the age of climate change, new research is showing that the world’s ecosystems may also play a role in weather. A recent study found that the Amazon rainforest acted as its own ‘bioreactor’, producing clouds and precipitation through the abundance of plant materials in the forest.

Economy: In the common tension viewed between the economy and the environment—e.g. do we clear-cut a forest or conserve it?—one fact is often neglected: the environment underpins the entire global economy. Without fertile soils, clean drinking water, healthy forests, and a stable climate, the world’s economy would face disaster. By imperiling our environment, we imperil the economy. According to research published in Science, the global worth of total ecosystem services could run between $40-60 trillion a year.

Health: Recent research has found what nature-lovers have long expected: spending time in a green space, such as a park, provides benefits for one’s mental and physical health. Exercising in a park, instead of inside a gym, has shown to provide mental health benefits as a greater sense of well-being. Walking for 20 minutes in a green space has been proven to help children with ADHD improve their concentration, even working as well, or better, than medication. People who live in more natural settings have better overall health, even when research has taken into account economic differences.

Mosaic artwork of wildlife in Buddhist temple in Laos. Nature has inspired both art and religion around the world. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Art: Imagine poetry without flowers, painting without landscapes, or film without scenery. Imagine if Shakespeare had no rose to compare Juliet to, or if William Blake had no Tyger to set alight. Imagine if Van Gogh lacked crows to paint or Durer a rhinoceros to cut. What would the Jungle Book be without Baloo or the Wind in the Willows without Mr. Badger? Imagine My Antonia without the red grass of the American prairie or Wuthering Heights without the bleak moors. How would The Lord of the Rings film series appear without the stunning mountain ranges of New Zealand, or Lawrence of Arabia without the desert of North Africa? There is no question that the natural world has provided global arts with some of its greatest subjects. What we lose in nature, we also lose in art.

Spiritual: While some of what nature provides us is measurable, most of what nature gives us is simply beyond measure. Economic measurements are useful; but as with most of what happens in the world, economics is simply incapable of capturing true worth. Science is also a useful measurement regarding the importance of nature, but once again cannot measure what nature means—practically and aesthetically—to each individual.

Perhaps the most difficult gift of nature’s to measure is its ingrained connection to human spirituality. In most of the world’s religions the natural world is rightly revered. In Christianity, Earthly paradise existed in a garden, while Noah, the original conservationist, is commanded by God to save every species. Buddhists believe all life—from the smallest fly to the blue whale—is sacred and worthy of compassion. For Hindus every bit of the natural world is infused with divinity. Muslims believe the natural world was created by Allah and only given to humans as gift to be held in trust. Indigenous cultures worldwide celebrate the natural world as their ‘mother’.

But one need not be religious to understand the importance of nature to the human spirit: one only need spend time alone in a shadowy forest, sit on a forgotten beach, touch the spine of a living frog, or watch the quarter moon swing behind mountain silhouettes.

A church rests in the shadows of mountains in Madagascar’s Tsaranoro Valley. Photo by: Rhett Butler.

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Bats worth billions

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(01/04/2011) Many US bumble bee populations have declined significantly over the past few decades, with certain species dropping off by as much as 96%. While the decline is linked to low genetic diversity and disease, an underlying cause remains uncertain.

Article published by Jeremy Hance

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