Seeds of Thought (2017)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Ecological Reflections

River Reflections

Welcome to Aldo’s Eco Zone, named for pioneer ecologist Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), author of A Sand County Almanac, “Thinking Like a Mountain,” Game Management, et al. Starting with the most recent Seeds of Thought (published quarterly in La Voz del Refugio by Friends of Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge), then working backwards, Eco Zone articles explore issues at the intersection of humans & the rest of nature, each published article followed by further thoughts offered here for the first time. Feel free to skim & skip along down to topics of special interest.

[Still earlier Seeds of Thought are available on the “Seeds Archive” pages, with another few dozen from pre-website days under another title not up, back to the 1st issue of the newsletter in 2003.]
~~~~~# 23: Resiliency~~~~~#22: Kinship with Magic

~~~ Seeds of Resiliency (#23) [March 2017]

Spring is the season of RESILIENCE, life again from the frozen land, a term even defined, from its roots, as the capacity to spring back, the ability of organisms, organizations or systems to recover, persevere, and grow stronger after or in response to stress….

The ability to spring back (from winter or anything else) doesn’t happen just by accident—though most does come with the territory, inherited from countless re-investments that keep on giving. This is especially so for resilience of land, wildlife, organisms and communities, but also applies to organizations, economic systems and societies as a whole. With many feedback loops, scales, time-frames, & points of views at play, resilience is dynamic and multi-dimensional.

Changing with conditions, resilience can also be developed or depleted, invested in or consumed, encouraged or impeded. With no human effort or investment at all, it would still be spring—thanks to wild resilience, the natural productivity of the land. Yet we also invest in shelter, institutions, infrastructure, education, know-how of all sorts, skilled personnel able to respond to a wide variety of situations as needed, and various critical systems, like the 3 E’s: Ecological, Educational, Economic.

Critical systems aren’t ultimately separate from each other. A short-term economic gain for a few can turn quickly into a long-term loss for many when negative ecological, educational, health and/or reduced productivity costs are factored in. The relation of critical systems can be temporarily inverse, but they soon come back in synch, usually more quickly than expected. An honest accounting shows it pays to respect mother nature, the ultimate source of resiliency.

“Wild capital,” nature’s stored productivity, involves genetic and ecological legacies, along with their varieties, redundancies, know-hows, adaptive capacities, networks and relationships developed over multiple time scales and orders of magnitude. Built-in resilience factors continue to be compounded—and/or depleted—in dynamic systems. Longer-term communities practice balance-keeping in relation to resources, therefore, getting the most benefit over time harvesting a share of reproductive surplus, not consuming nature’s productive capital or depleting reserves.

Nature’s highly evolved checks and balances add levels of resilience, yet can also be destabilized by the effects of potentially runaway human technologies—requiring intelligent human management. What we call intelligence contributes to resiliency, then, the integrity of systems over time. In natural systems, such intelligence needn’t be conscious or intentional. When the threats to the wild capital base come from the rapidly compounding effects of human technologies, however, consciousness and intention are called for.

The escalating pace of human impact intensifies the scale and range of stresses, along with  interest in resiliency studies; so, to flesh the concept out in action, I’ve included links to a few noteworthy examples on the website (including a recent one by an FLVNWR member). Consider this just the sprouting seed of the effort to expand our understanding of resiliency—what conveys, builds, consumes or wastes it; its sources, functions, applications, and embodiments.

Come to think of it, the seed itself represents a perfect example of natural resilience, a stored productive capacity (or spring-back reserve) invested with stress resistance, potentially even invigorated by having passed through winter! On the other hand, the same can be said of our feathered friends. To see how this seed of thought develops, then, pop, hop, click or flicker on over to the Eco Zone page at, where the exploration continues. –Ooops. You’re already here! 

Three Follow-ups:

A Definitions

B: 3 Resiliency-based Studies In Action—

C: Contributing Factors & Attributes of ‘Wild Capital’  [Most of this is now beyond the immediate scope, so just the opening section is included here now. The more complete look at the nature of capital & factors affecting natural productivity may be added in clickable pdf eventually, sooner if asked for, &/or put on the Going Deeper page.]  

A: Definitions of Resilience

Ways of evaluating or measuring resilience depend on context, but the essential definition remains mostly the same as used in ecology, psychology, medicine, and economics:

  the capacity of an organism, organization, or system
to process, spring back and/or recover from stress,
disturbance and/or disruption.

The concept of resilience is so widely used across fields these days, it deserves clarification. An honest look at our definition already reveals some possible confusion in the words stress, disturbance & disruption. In fact, there’s no fixed dividing line between a stress that “disturbs” (according to type, intensity & duration), interpreted as a negative, and an exercise that draws on reserve energy for positive outcomes, including development, tone, and fitness. The “undisturbed state” isn’t that of a un-kicked rock or couch potato, in other words.

If you’re an antelope, stress generated by the presence of predators likely contributes to your fitness, following the principle that what doesn’t catch you makes you stronger, or at least shows you’re among the faster, improving the chance of passing on those genes. The predator also keeps the species more fit generally and its populations more stable, modulating the boom-bust collapse potential of a strictly herbivore-vegetation relationship, providing a narrower range of relative prosperity for predator, prey and vegetation alike over a longer time frame.

Ideological arguments entirely aside, one must admit a kind of dynamic intelligence at work in the emergent balance, ultimately beneficial to each. Throw the relations out of kilter to the advantage of predator or prey, however, and sooner or later the chickens come home to roost; the human need to manage human effects increases if we’re to prove sufficiently resilient to meet the challenges we’ve set in motion.

Similarly, there’s no absolute line between change, seemingly inherent in the nature of time, and disturbance, by which we mean stress-related change of the negative variety, as evident in whatever comparative criteria we’re using to evaluate vigor, variety, productivity, re-productive vitality, or whatever other measures of system health apply. A resilient market can take small shocks, stressful information, even the disturbance of negative pricing “correction” in stride, without a crisis, panic or significant disruption.

Disruption involves recognizable degrees of disturbance in which significant processes are interrupted or cease to function at the former sustainable level, threatening key components of the system, the system itself, and connected systems. In the financial crisis of 2008, for example, various currency flows froze, with vast domino & spill-over effects throughout the economy. In the Kaibab deer die-off, human elimination of wolves sparked a deer boom that depleted the forest food source to the level of mutual collapse, leaving a lower-functioning system.

It’s not accidental that the concept applies to different kinds of systems—ecological & economic, for example, where quite comparable dynamics can be at play, despite the manifest differences. Although the term can be applied to the ability of a material to spring back to a former shape after a stress has deformed it, resilience is mostly a function of an organization or system, something with many parts & synergistic relationships—other organizations, entities & operating systems directly or indirectly affected.

Another way to describe a system’s spring-back capacity is in terms of its RESERVE CAPITAL. Capital is another term for productive CAPACITY. Resilience is essentially the system’s reserve capacity. More precisely, CAPITAL, stored productivity, conveys resilience. Capital can be Financial, Intellectual, Cultural, Social, Physical, or NATURAL & WILD, according to the system.

In nature, stored productivity takes many forms at different orders of magnitude, including genetic, cultural, & ecological. Wild capital includes all stored know-how, diversity, redundancy, adaptive capacity, & kinds of stress resistance (from protective membranes and shells to beneficial relationships of exchange, influence & cooperation).

Levels of resistance to (& ability to recover from) particular stresses, will vary with kinds, duration, intensity, degrees of disturbance or disruption, as with individual, organization, and order of magnitude. Even as resilience gives out for some individuals, in other words, ecological resilience as a whole may increase as parts of depleted sub-systems are recycled.

Resilience reflects the relative level of reserve capital, which provides a rough measure of the ability to spring back from a given range, type & intensity of stresses. That doesn’t necessarily mean returning to the exact same shape & composition as in pre-disturbed condition, however. Time doesn’t flow back even as cycles overlap. Nature is more like a river that follows its own dynamics, as well as the natural contours of the land. Disrupt its flow, and it goes on flowing in another direction (even vertically).

Banks & other financial institutions may be given “stress tests,” therefore, to check if their reserves seem sufficient to weather a defined range of situations & conditions. Most study of capital has focused almost entirely on financial & physical forms, e.g., bank credits & potentially productive equipment. It’s easy to see that a machine that can make something represents a store of productivity, so buying it represents something quite different from spending the same amount on operating expenses or for consumption.

The same can be said for intellectual property, with the rights to productive know-how. More recently, Francis Fukuyama & others have looked at the roles, sources & effects of SOCIAL CAPITAL, good will, know-how, organization & relationships underlying economic & political systems, including what creates, consumes &/or destroys it. In the world we know, many kinds of capital are involved, working together to produce value.    

We shouldn’t forget that NATURAL or WILD CAPITAL has always been–& remains–the foundation sustaining the system as a whole, the system-of-systems, arguably the ultimate source of value, including all life, food, air, water, health, wildlife, vegetation, & renewal. Being a function of systems, it doesn’t work by itself, in isolation, or in a vacuum, but in combination, in our case where culture, society, economics, individual know-how & wild productivity meet, playing an often invisible role in most of what even humans produce.

As discussed in more detail in follow-up C, below, wild capital has been built up by long-term compounding, in which a portion of the surplus has been reinvested in future productivity, over & over & over. All capital, of whatever kind, requires some reinvestment simply to maintain its productivity level, some variation in which also goes with the territory. Ideally, one harvests part of a surplus to consume, puts some back to maintain & upgrade, re-investing the rest in & for future productivity.

At the first level of sustainability, one may forego investment in increased productivity, while managing consumption & system maintenance. Below that, however, and productive capacity itself starts to be consumed, meaning a trajectory of less tomorrow–which is where the stored bounce-back of the system’s resilience becomes so important.

We seem to know much less about the breaking points in natural systems, including our own bodies, than about financial institutions. While some components of productivity can be quantified, other critical aspects emerge not from entities per se, but out of the relationship of elements in the system. Many mutually advantageous exchanges & relations, whether conscious & intentional or not, are of this order, as are the checks & balances that develop involving multiple parties over time.

The greater the human impact on the wild capital equations, the greater our need to understand the systems & manage the stresses we add–a matter deeply complicated by the different orders of magnitude involved, from the extremely local (back yard & back forty), where most of our work takes place, to the regional & global, generally less subject to our influence.  These different orders meet in resiliency-based management studies.

B: 3 Resiliency-based Studies In Action—

1. “…an assessment of the current resilience of the ecosystem…within the Great Barrier Reef Region.” provides an excellent example of a resilience-based ecosystem management study in action. Click on the following 2009 report, which demonstrates what might be called “coherent complexity,” “mosaic clarity,” or the many variously moving parts involved in ecosystem resilience. On the one hand, there are countless pixels of information; on the other, a single picture emerges, angle and distance dependent. Complexity informs coherence, and vice versa.

[2. I don’t particularly recommend Rethinking Ecosystem Resilience in the Face of Climate Change (Isabelle M. Côté & Emily S. Darling), except for a few wrinkles in its alternative view of resiliency in coral reef resistance. It raises the possibility that trying to return a local system to pre-disturbance levels of, say species distribution, might in some cases lower resistance to climate-change stresses by reducing relative levels of more generally stress-resistant types. Worth a note, along with its further claim that trying to protect or boost certain species may inadvertently inhibit the “functional redundancy” otherwise developing, thanks to the increasing levels of species more inherently adapted to the newer conditions. Well, maybe—in some cases.

The article makes a distinction between two aspects—or stage-specific faces—of resilience: resistance to stress; recovery from disturbance. It points out that in coral reefs, reserves (“No Take Zones”) definitely help recovery, reversing algification, for example, but have no effect on global conditions (temperature, acidification), so that some non-protected, locally stressed areas may have developed more generally stress-resistant populations.

Possibly a useful counter-balance to the idea of there having been some prior “purely pristine state,” an Eden before any disturbances—at least any related to humans. But there’s no putting the fruits of knowledge back on the tree, no way to un-know without un-doing ourselves in the process. As deep into the wilderness as one may get, there’s now no escape from more global conditions, which can have extremely disturbing local effects—e.g., fire, flood & wind-events.

While it’s also true that some far more humanly disturbed local environments may seem to have more resistance to climate-charged events, such a reasoning isn’t particularly relevant to most functional management situations, which always start with (and repeatedly come back to) existing conditions. What difference does it make if a paved parking lot with planters is more resistant to fire, flood & wind damage than a thickly forested patch in mid-wilderness?

You work with what you start with, developing a management plan accordingly. As in medicine or health more generally, resilience-based management responds to the actual conditions as beneficially as possible, focused mainly on the local, where influence is most tangible. Where functional influence is involved, whether in terms of an individual body or a refuge, there’s no fixed line between what builds resistance to stress and what helps recover from disturbance. “Prevention is the best cure.” Nothing beats maintaining the system’s health, in cost, quality or effectiveness, in other words. Once a serious disruption has occurred, other steps to aid recovery become necessary, responsive to that situation.]

the mannikin challenge

3. The study giving rise to Enduring a decade of drought: Patterns and drivers of vegetation change in a semi-arid grassland (by Gitanjali S. Bodner & Marcos D. Robles, The Nature Conservancy, Center for Science and Public Policy, in the Journal of Arid Environments, Nov. 2016) “evaluated patterns and drivers of vegetation change in a semi-arid grassland in southern Arizona across eleven years of extended drought and high temperatures, 2004-2014…. Findings suggest managers could improve chances for sustaining resilience by responding to rainfall in multiple seasons, monitoring for mortality events, and establishing contingency plans for various types of drought.”

Besides being partly by a FLVNWR member, Gita’s report brings us back from coral reef country to dry land, very dry. The article uses the term resilience sparingly, but (as with Aldo Leopold, who may not have used it at all), the concept remains key to its focus.


Ish’s flicker

What creates it? Where does it come from, where does it go? Can we change, consume, deplete &/or build it?  Its main contributing factors include:

 Inherent Reproductivity—generative genetic & ecologically productive capacities which give rise to

imperfect duplication produces many eggs in more than one basket, with added values derived from  

————Variation—divergent varieties, which generate an expanded range of potentials
for situations to call forth or favor, thereby increasing

——————Adaptive Capacity, the ability to respond effectively to changes—

whether drawing on primal creativity, accumulated know-how, inherent or developed flexibility, our own intelligence or nature’s—each adds to resilience, according to the system being studied—organism, particular ecology, economy, life on a planetary scale.

These factors or faces of resilience all seem o be present to one degree or another from the beginning of life. The inherent reproductivity of living forms gives rise to multiplicity, which takes the twin forms of redundancy & variation, repetition & variety, together broadening the range of potential response to the variety of possible conditions—more or less all of which may exist at various times &/or places….


Seeds of Thought (22): Kinship with Magic… [Dec. 2016/ Jan/ 2017]


From the dawn of consciousness, people have found pleasure, knowledge, empathy & wonder eye to eye with wild creatures. Whether met in nature or through an artist’s rendering, some of these seem to come imbued with magic, a power to move, affect, change one’s state.

This is not the “magic” of popular entertainment, based on trickery, sleight of hand, and mis-direction. Nature has its share of illusions and tricksters, with countless forms of mimicry, fakery, camouflage and display in its repertoire, yet its magic is far more basic, going to the heart of original creativity. Each “trick” discovered reveals other wonders, often on multiple scales.

Cousins of the word “magic” include image (“likeness”) and imagination (“the ability to form mental images of what’s not otherwise present”), all derived from an ancient root for “to knead, press, make.” All living organisms, from microbes on, exhibit the propensity to make, starting with parts and generations of themselves. Early human artists worked magic in ochre, clay, wood, stone and bone, making likenesses of various kinds with considerable power to move.

The perceived world generates an image in the mind, a likeness, according to nature’s magic; the artist makes a new representation out of imagination and medium, informed by observation and current feeling, with its own power to move. Re-imagined by each observer, the image-in-the-mind—as in any rendering—represents a joining of observed and observer.

In the continual exchange of organism and environment, the world as personally experienced is no longer something just out there, whether considered psychologically or physiologically, in terms of images or molecules. Received images from nature or art, like different molecules, can have quite individual effects, even across distances of space, time and culture.

The capacity to move (and be moved) in particular ways can be deeply wired into species, as well as culturally influenced. At the refuge recently, observing an elk herd off in the distance, the countless hues of the richly stained autumn fields mingling with the gossip of the cranes and geese made for an evocative mix. No description or rendering can reproduce such original experience in nature, with all the senses engaged, beyond frames, boundaries, or fixed horizons.

Yet the creative capacity remains fresh, immediate, subject to individual focus, personal spirit and artistic vision, nevertheless, with a lively power to move all its own. I’ve seen a few actual owls up close, for example, always with a sense of wide-eyed admiration. Even their pellets seem magical. An artist’s representation, in whatever medium, may carry some of the effects associated with the original subject, along with the maker’s own feelings and attitudes.

The elegant, endearing owl pair in Ian Strachan’s “Barndance” (above) has a spirit and personality all its own, drawn from the wild magic of the original form in nature (possibly via the Melbourne zoo) and the artist’s playful imagination. Thanks to my old friemnd Ian’s Visual Memoir for the image that actually set these thoughts in motion—along with more about magic and other ways of relating to nature on the Eco-Zone page at But for now

We’ve bagged our limit—
~~~~our basket overflows with
~~~~~~~~owl hoots & meadowlark songs



Or one moment a jay, another a “Starry Night,” the next a zap of inspiration…. We’re nourished with wonders of creative spirit in nature and art. Effects aren’t limited to the impact of animals and beauty of landscape.image-7

Images can also be ominous and menacing, represent real or imagined threats. They can stereotype & demonize, seduce & mislead.  They can reassure, calm or trigger a flock into flight.


They can be audible as well as visual, conceptual as well as perception-based, borrowed as well as original. Where sounds are involved, their powers to affect feelings and attitudes have long been recognized more or less world-wide, the Pythagoreans and composers of the Vedic hymns being two notable examples of those who consciously addressed vibrational impacts on the psyche.

The mantra is one embodiment, but so are lullabies, love-songs, incantations, martial airs & marches, hymns & anthems, nursery rhymes & most poetry made to be heard, if only in the reader’s mind. In some cases, observed effects can be associated with particular formal characteristics, certain moods with certain keys, for example, by which feelings can be  transmitted &/or manipulated.

The vibrational ability of sound, voice, language to transmit mood & feeling is not in the least limited to humans. In the human context, this direct transmission of affect can take place at any level of self-consciousness &/or intention, inadvertently as well as purposefully. The vibrational transmission of language also seems to give rise to the very stuff of thought, the rhythms, tones & moods of which may in turn transmit feeling.

Not being the result of higher-cortex conceptual information, “affective” effects can be at odds with content &/or intent (as well as subject to independent analysis for signs of stress & other emotional indicators). Usually, thought & feelings travel in synch, woven together. They are not alternatives to each other, but complimentary aspects of our most basic relationships with the world around us.

Eminent scientists can be as affected by the power of images in nature as children in the forest or birds in a flock. Mental activity may predominate in some situations, physical, emotional, aesthetic, social aspects in others. In relation to nature, human understanding may primarily expand the range of wonder and power of representation.

The depth & texture of personal experience seem to be more random variables, largely independent of intellectual interpretation or degree of conceptual abstraction. Strangely, the same might be said about the relationship of science & magic, whether the original magic of creative existence or human versions involving the ability to effect changes in  entities, outcomes & events. As illustrated by the well documented “placebo effect,” many actual mechanisms of influence are not well understood, yet nevertheless “real.”

Whether for sorcerer or scientist, one distinctive characteristic of magic has long been considered “action at a distance.” This is what helped draw Newton’s attention to gravity, & Einstein’s from there to a theory of relativity accounting for each observer’s frame of reference, along with the idea of mass-curved space-time. It’s rather straightforward, or linear, to account for the interactions of billiard balls, but quite another to account for influences when pool cues & collisions aren’t visible as instruments.

image-5Light plays tricks on action at a distance by transcending distance itself, whether measured in time or space. From the photon’s frame of reference, transmission takes no time, thus far & near entangled. Yet the passage of light becomes our yardstick when we try to map our place in the universe, measuring space & time  in light-years back to a conceptualized “original creation,” a background radiation of ultimate magic— out of nothing, not just something, but everything…!

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, creation continues, as original as ever.  Efforts to trace the magical aspects of creation must eventually contend with light, whether in its biotic transformations here on earth, the universe at large, or its range of artistic impact….


Light certainly qualifies in the magic category, powering earth’s weather, bloom & at least upper-level life. It may be considered the ultimate magic seemingly known so far from physical evidence, something with the power to make, the very energy of creativity—unless one counts dark energy, black holes or big bang, each arguably more inferred than known.

The power of light to move may affect an organism’s processes on multiple levels, from the most basic to the most profound. Sometimes these two may be the same—the more basic we tune our attention, the more profound the sense of resonance & implications.



It’s said that the human brain is capable of perceiving single photons, for example, but only when it has adapted to the dark,  thanks to the build-up of a light-sensitive substance called rhodopsin–which light degrades.

Close molecular relatives of rhodopsin have been found in many other creatures, including depth-dwelling ocean microbes adapted to low photon levels, where every cup-full of water can nevertheless contain millions of individuals with an astounding variety of genetic potentials.

Each observer responds according to wiring & programing, sensitive to a range of wave lengths, temperatures, & chemical compositions. Each creature, as well as each artist, has its own range of interests, capacities, and kinds of relations with the rest of the neighborhood, world, and cosmos. In the case of van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” for example, his translation of received experience to canvas mixes his own intense feeling along with pigments & oils. The result is not just shared sensations, but some of the feelings.


Works of art have few, if any, limits in how sensations & feelings are imagined, generated, or manipulated to give them their “power to move.” One may depend primarily on the original image in nature, carried via an impression in variations of light. Another may depend on more abstract elements in light’s play through wave-specific pigments, feelings of texture, or other non-representational aspects, including patterns in form.

photoAt one extreme, there’s Jackson Pollack at his most exuberant; at another, prints by Ansel Adams, either one more or less equally received from nature & generated by the dance with materials.

The liveliness of a painted jay, like the single creature in nature, can feel quite individual, a particular bird whose alert attention leaps from its eye to ours. In “Barn Dance,” the equally particular couple, however much based on models in the original world, can be considered as native to Ian’s mind as the “wheat-field crows” were to Vincent’s.

[I’d take Ian’s birds any day, including the owls he “sees everywhere.” For crows, I’d go to Tony Angell’s, or the elm trees surrounding our house.]

scan-3This jay came from a Concert for the Birds silent auction a few years ago. Alas, the cropping doesn’t do bird or painting justice. Hope to figure how to fix this–& who the artist is.

The bright semi-abstracts are from Virginia’s Gallery, reachable by menu at top of the page.  Will put up a few of Tony Angell’s corvids when I figure how to manage the scaling & cropping….

Going Deeper: an overview

photoWe may make a convenient distinction between seemingly quite different ways of relating to nature, though also potentially misleading, since they are far from mutually exclusive: e.g.,

magical (superstitious, animistic);
aesthetic (perception-based, pleasure-based, making-based…);
religious (sacramental, conceptual &/or ideological);
productive (exploitative, functional, fundamentally practical);
scientific (based on objective observation, experiment, reasoning);

Some might prefer to lump various categories to simplify—e.g., religious, scientific, productive—or perhaps add recreational, something with aesthetic, psychological, emotional & physically functional aspects. In practice, the categories are no more separate than our complementary senses, used simultaneously in ever-varying degrees to draw a coherent sense of the world….

[click to continue:  ways-of-relating-to-nature ]