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Living In A World of Extremes

For over 30 years, I’ve worked in rainforest ecosystems. My senses are finely tuned to the sweet smell of cedar and pine, sap runs through my veins, and I have learned how to read the forest like the pages of a good mystery novel. But each year, I do an annual trek to the desert where rainforests give way to spiny, prickly things with names like pincushion and rainbow cactus, prickly pear cactus, and ocotillo. This year, I arrived in the Sonoran desert just outside Phoenix, Arizona during an early spring bloom where I was greeted by a kaleidoscope of colors and unfamiliar scents. But what do such extreme environments have to teach a rainforest guy? To even the most causal observer, deserts and rainforests are polar opposites. While rainforests bath in moisture, deserts must cope without a drop. In rainforests, it’s easy to go vertical as trees are layered from the ground up. In deserts, vertical is replaced by a hodgepodge of irregularly spaced shrubs, small trees, low-growing cactuses, and the desert equivalent of old growth – long-lived saguaros with “arms” that point every which way. Snags, downed logs, and pileated woodpecker hollows are replaced by the occasional dead saguaro hollowed out by desert-dwelling Gila woodpeckers, nature’s version of “drill baby drill.” Instead of humus-rich rainforest soils, crypto-biotic crusts are populated by an unseen world of microbes and algae. Just a few nights in the desert can convince even the staunchest rainforest advocate that something is special here too. Contrary to popular belief, arid landscapes are far from a wasteland. The desert is a rich, interconnected ecosystem that has etched out an existence in some of the harshest environments on the planet. Javelinas, bobcats, poisonous snakes, scorpions, tarantula hawk wasps, Gila monsters, and Harris hawks are but a few of the life forms in the extremes. And while the absence of clearcuts offers a temporary respite for a rainforest ecologist like me, the desert is not without its own scars. Cow-bombed landscapes replace native plants with cheatgrass, crush crypto-biotics, and pollute streams with cow excrement. Cavernous pits are dug out of the earth, as minors search for gold, silver, uranium, and copper, leaving mounds of toxic tailings behind. A relentless caravan of off-highway vehicles discombobulates the homes of desert sidewinders and tortoises. On the one hand, nature’s disturbances, known as “pulse” disturbances since they occur more or less in regular cycles with predictable outcomes, have sculptured both desert and rainforest environments for millennia. Humanity’s disturbances, on the other hand, are chronic, occurring at much greater intensities, frequencies, and over larger expanses that exceed nature’s rejuvenating powers. Clearly, humans have become the planet’s bigfoot in terms of our ecological footprint. As such, both rainforest and desert environments share a common fate. Their survival depends on stepped-up stewardship, conservation, and human restraint. There is still time to live sustainably even at these opposite extremes. We can best do this by operating within the means of what both ecosystems can provide without forgoing opportunities for future generations. As I observed a passing bobcat, I pondered whether it sensed that I was a stranger to this extreme land. And I wondered whether there really is any respite for an ecologist who cares about the beauty and pain of both places.