Learning the lessons of cliffs

Cliff Dwellers

To hear Doug Larson and Peter Kelly tell it, humans, in their evolution, have never left home. We still live like the cliff dwellers we once were. The problem is we’ve left behind the lessons cliffs offer, and as a result, there’s a crisis in nature.

Larson is professor and director of The Cliff Ecology Research Group at the University of Guelph. Kelly is a research associate. The crisis, they say, is graphically portrayed in a new study entitled The Human Footprint and the Last of the Wild (BioScience, Oct. 2002, Vol. 53, No. 10, pages 891-904, and also at www.wcs.org/humanfootprint).

According to the study, « 83 per cent of the land’s surface, and 98 per cent of the area where it is possible to grow rice, wheat, or maize, is directly influenced by human beings. » In other words, there is precious little land on the planet that has not been changed by humans. What’s left is the last of the wild. And this may be the last chance to save it.

« Nature is often resilient, if given half a chance, » one of the research partners says on the web site. « Human beings are in the position of offering or withholding that chance. »

However, says Larson, « We’d better relearn the lessons of the cliffs, or there will be hell to pay. » Without embracing those lessons, nature will never get half a chance.

Larson is the person who discovered that ancient, 800-year-old cedars grow on the cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment.

Since then, he has travelled to cliff faces around the world and has discovered they harbour similar ancient trees. These places are refuges, Larson says. Because of their inaccessibility, they have escaped human exploitation, and so they are living records of the past.

« Unless we have places that have been around for a very long time, we won’t know what normal is, » Larson says. « We won’t have benchmarks. » That’s why refuges, such as the cliffs at the escarpment are so important. « They’re the elders who can teach us something. »

He goes further. Cliffs are where humans used to live, he says. It was where they found caves and other places of shelter. And it was where that they developed « an evolutionary-based psychological association linking rock outcrops to safety, food, shelter, and home. »

As they ventured away from caves, to build homes, fortresses, and cities, they tried to duplicate the conditions that made them feel so secure in caves, he says.

In short, he says, « We are a cliff species. » We’ve spent our history « reconfiguring the landscape » to mimic caves.

What’s more, we’ve brought other cliff species to live with us — such as a wide variety of plants and weeds, as well as animals such as black rats, house mice, pigeons, house sparrows, starlings, goats, sheep, German cockroaches, house cats, peregrine falcons, and barn owls.

The theory is presented an article entitled The Puzzling Implication of the Urban Cliff Hypothesis (Society for Ecological Restoration News, May 2002, Vol. 15, No. 1).

« Our analysis of 115 species (that coexist with humans) shows that 54 per cent of them are native to (cliffs), » say Larson and associates in the article, even though these habitats represent only 1 per cent of the landscape.

Larson’s conclusion? The problem the world faces isn’t the number of people. It’s the cliff habitat they’ve brought with them. It’s what we’re building.

It’s also that we’ve forgotten what cliffs teach, namely that life can exist on very little and still be very full. « So the lesson for us is that people don’t need as much stuff as they think they need, » Larson says. « Don’t ask for a lot, and enjoy all of it, » he suggests.

His most chilling observation is that trees on cliffs die if they get too big. « They get too heavy and just fall off the cliff, » he says.

The message for us is unmistakable.

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