THEOSOPHY, Vol. 81, No. 6, April, 1993
(Pages 175-179; Size: 12K)



[Part 5 of a 16-part series]

To understand more fully the environmental harm done to the land, let us review the kinds of vegetation found on continents, islands, mountains, and lowland. The importance of vegetation is obvious; it feeds animal and human life in all climates and seasons. The thousands of plant species may be divided into four groups for purposes of our consideration. Biologists use a more complex system, which is more detailed than we need. The basic groups are: forest (tropical and temperate), grassland (prairie), desert, and tundra. Another important group, wetlands, is found in the midst of other groups.

Land Vegetation: Forests

Vegetation on all lands reflects the amount of water available and other climatic conditions. Forests contain large plants, mostly trees, in close proximity. Grasslands have sparser vegetation and fewer trees; they supply the needs of large grazing animals. Desert vegetation is even sparser; plants survive because they have developed ways to store and conserve water. Tundra is present in arctic climates with low moisture, reduced light, and low temperatures; as a result there are fewer species of plants, and they are smaller.

Lee Durrel, author of State of the Ark, writes that the current distribution of land areas is about 2/5 forest, 2/5 grassland, 1/7 desert, and the remainder tundra. Because of intrusive human activities on land near deserts, the amount of desert has been rising -- now 1/5, an increase of about 6 percent -- decreasing the amount of forest and grassland.

Forest Vegetation

We read much about the cutting down and burning of dense rain forests to make room for farms and cattle. Denuding the rain forests is also a serious matter; since most of the vegetation is in the canopy, there is little topsoil left in the ground, and it is not productive for very long when farmed. Temperate forests in the American Northwest have also been depleted by the timber industry. Clear-cutting large stands of trees destroys species and subjects soil to erosion. The temperate forest is largely on or under the ground rather than in the canopy. Both kinds of forest house numerous species of animals, many of which will become extinct if their habitat is destroyed.

Rain forests are also found in some temperate zones. In any case, these forests are part of a balanced ecosystem that affects even the weather. It has been projected that the world's weather patterns will undergo large changes as a result of the encroachment of civilization on the forests.

The Prairie

Little of the original American prairie is left. This was the first land to be stripped of its 150 to 200 species of plants as the pioneers moved West, bringing the plow and domesticated European animals. Farms, roads, and towns replaced a rich ecosystem that fed large herds of buffalo, other native American species, and many Indian societies. Illinois, the "prairie state," has only a few scattered acres of original prairie left.

The Los Angeles Times for July 24, 1990, had an article on "Rescuing a Shrinking Treasure," which contained much information on the prairie. In 150 years we have almost wiped out what took 12,000 years to produce. Nature Conservancy volunteers have rescued some remnants of the original prairie, which involved moving sod and plants to a protected location. Such efforts are limited attempts to conserve a valued and necessary resource!

Wes Jackson, a pioneer researcher in prairie ecology, established and directs the work of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, which is trying to breed new kinds of prairie plants that will produce food suitable for human consumption. Unlike many current food crops, the native prairie plants are resistant to drought and pests. The main advantage of prairie plants over domesticated crops is that they do not require plowing or seasonal replanting. We will discuss the advantage of perennials in conserving topsoil in another article. The magazines Manas and THEOSOPHY have printed material on Wes Jackson. To learn more about his work one might read New Roots for Agriculture, his major work.

Desert -- Tundra

Deserts support a surprising amount of plant and animal life in spite of their sparse appearance and the lack of water. However, the invasion of the California desert by four-wheel-drive vehicles, all-terrain vehicles, and motorcycles has devastated the fragile ecosystem. Deserts exist anywhere from below sea level (Death Valley) to several thousand feet above sea level (Mohave). Most of the southwestern American states are desert but contain some highly developed smog-producing urban areas. Excellent material on the desert is found in the books of Joseph Wood Krutch, who had remarkable perceptiveness, scientific knowledge, and graceful literary expressiveness.

Tundra, found in arctic regions, can be compared to desert in warm areas in that both require little rain. Unlike desert, however, it needs little light. Because of extreme conditions, tundra plants grow slowly, conserve energy, and are easily damaged. They are found beyond northern or southern evergreen forests in areas free of surface ice for part of the year but where the subsoil remains frozen (called "permafrost"). Although tundra grows in areas where there are few people, oil and minerals explorations have managed to destroy much of it with heavy vehicles and equipment.


Swamps, marshes, and bogs are found in many parts of the world. Most are constantly wet but some become so only during rainy seasons. Inland wetlands form in places of poor drainage and of lower elevation than their surroundings. Swamps are dominated by trees, marshes by grasses, and bogs by shrubs (heaths). Wetlands purify water in addition to containing exotic species of plants, reptiles, birds, and fish. Foods coming from wetlands include cranberries, watercress, and shrimp; medicines are made from other plants. Marshes near the ocean become brackish from salt water. These coastal wetlands provide spawning grounds for 60 to 90 percent of U.S. commercial fish.

The status of our wetlands is alarming. Only 95 million acres are left in the lower 48 states of the U.S., and these are being depleted at the rate of 300,000 to 450,000 acres annually. California has already lost 91 percent of its original wetlands, and in some states the loss is even greater ("A Former Foe, Army Corps Now Fights for Wetlands," Los Angeles Times, July 5, 1990). The Army Corps of Engineers was responsible for the loss of some wetlands, partly by straightening out snaky rivers. Having realized their error, the Corps is now actively undoing the damage and restoring rivers to their original meandering, slower flowing courses, which created adjacent wetlands. Material on the subject may be found in Feb. 15, 1992, Los Angeles Times: "Florida's Apologies to Nature," subheading "In the name of flood control and progress, a winding, teeming river was made straight. Decades of damage later, engineers seek to restore the state's watery ecosystem." The National Research Council is also a proponent of restoring wetlands: "Restore Nation's Wetlands, Report Urges," Los Angeles Times, Dec. 12, 1991.

Nature's Great Variety

We may wonder why it is necessary for Nature to produce such a great variety of species and the ecological importance of biodiversity. Would a smaller number be adequate for evolutionary progress? Before reaching fixed conclusions, we should remember that Nature is guided by higher intelligences who perceive the operation of the whole. When species become extinct without human interference, it means they can no longer adapt to constant environmental changes and needs. Nature is prolific but not wasteful. The disappearance of species is not always a sign of destructive human activities. At the end of a cycle, or a conjunction of cycles, might it become necessary to have fewer species? To know what is happening, more evidence may be needed to determine what is necessary for nature and for mankind.

Thoughts of cooperation will help to keep useful species in existence. The use of pesticides and insecticides has proven ineffective in solving pest problems permanently. If we learn the power of creative rather than destructive thinking, we will avoid the tendency to destroy troublesome forms and systems. The attitude of Ahimsa, harmlessness, may be the key to solving all problems.

COMPILER'S NOTE: The following is a separate item which followed the above article but was on the same page. I felt it was useful to include it here:

If you look again at the fact of symbiosis you see that in principle it is universal. For all organisms are part of the web; their underlying and vital relationships are one vast multiple symbiosis. And when you turn your gaze thus upon the web of life, then indeed you are entered upon the deepest science. Here are gathered together and interbraided the scattered researches, the papers in fifty languages and in a thousand journals. ... They all weave together, they all essentially indicate one thing; they illustrate, they elucidate, they predict, the action that one living gesture will have upon other living things, so fabulously formed, so densely crowded, upon this spinning ball of earth....

For the fates of living things are bound together, and a wise man can grow wiser, learning it. The perilous balance, the dangerous adventure, the thirst, the needs, the crashing end -- they are impartially allotted to us all, tall man or taller tree. What we the living require is most of all each other. Progeny we must have, company, provender, friends, and even enemies. The whole long vital experiment on earth is symbiotic by chains of cause and relation past glib explaining. It is not explained why there is for us all but one life, but it is plain enough that all life is one. 


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