16 October 2007

Why Monocultures are Bad for You

In 1987, the Great Storm struck south-eastern England; one result was the mass destruction of many woodlands:

Because the hill was effectively a monoculture of mature beech trees of a similar age, it did not surprise Mr White that so many were lost in the storm.

Twenty years on, the woods are growing back - some of them naturally, not in a managed way as they were before the storm. The result?

As part of the recovery programme on the hill, the National Trust formed a partnership with English Nature to see what would happen if 50 acres (20Ha) of the 450-acre (180Ha) site was left to recover naturally.

"There is a very high percentage of dead wood in there," Mr White revealed, "which is now home to invertebrates, which birds obviously feed on.

"And the fungi are absolutely magnificent, especially at this time of year. There is a very varied ecology; a mature and advanced ecology."

The lessons for the ecosystem of software will not be lost on readers of this blog....

Parenthetically, I was there when the Great Storm struck. Shortly afterwards, I wrote a cheerful little piece about it, reproduced for your delectation below:

Windy City

Some sat at their desks, fiddling with pencils and paperclips. Others stood in the corridors, dimly lit by the emergency power. With no phones and no electricity, there was nothing to be done. An enormous silence hung over the whole building. Outside, there was a clear blue sky.

Upon waking that morning, it was apparent that something was wrong. The alarm radio had not gone off: its display was dead. Throughout the still house all the electric clocks had stopped at the same moment: 4.34 am; it was as if time had had a heart attack. No light, no hot water, no kettle: the tiny marginal acts of civilisation had been cancelled.

People stumbled into work as if in a trance, more out of habit than from any real sense of necessity. Everywhere there were scenes of destruction: huge trees uprooted, lying stricken across the road. Cars were driven under them with white-knuckled bravado, or gingerly past them, up on the pavement. People milled around, some taking photographs. There were no trains and few buses. An occasional ambulance flashed by.

On the radio the police issued urgent pleas for everyone to stay at home; it was pointless going to work they said. And the radio itself was strangely different. Bulletins were broadcast every ten minutes. The mindless music and vacuous ads had all but stopped. Instead, the catalogue of deaths and disasters, the no-go areas and the helplessness of the authorities were hammered home with a kind of crazy glee. A curious jitter ran through people, as if someone had walked over their collective grave. It felt like the end of the world.

It was the Great Wind of '87. 'The worst weather in 300 years', they said, 'the worst disaster since the war'. The dead, though few, were publicly lamented - so alien to this sanitised world of ours is random, violent death through force of Nature. Everyone felt an aesthetic pang at the sight of centuries of trees laid low in the dust; still majestic like fallen royalty, but doomed and irreplaceable. But most of all people felt themselves chastened, as if they had narrowly escaped something unthinkable. A case of presque-vu.

For winds, albeit of record speeds, had shut down the whole seething, pullulating metropolis of London. No transport, no telephones, and worst of all, no power. Mere air had pulled the plug on late twentieth century civilisation in so comprehensive a manner that people could only stand around and stare impotently. Power and telephone lines were restored after some hours, but the effects of that great wind were felt directly for days after, and the scars would remain for decades.

Imagine, then, a greater wind, an unnatural wind whose very touch is death. After a nuclear explosion, following the huge pulse of radiation, but before the even more horrifying fall-out of radioactive debris, there is a shock wave. That shock wave moves across the land like the Voice of God in the Old Testament: it is swift and terrible and unstoppable. In comparison the Great Wind of '87 will seem a light spring breeze. Looking around at our silent, desolated city, were we not right to be windy?


CRConrad said...

You write: "...the electric clocks had stopped at the same moment: 4.34 am..."

Ah yes, the good old days -- when even electric clocks had displays that would still show the time even after they were powered off (usually flip-flapping little Rolodex-like things made of plastic flaps with the top half of one number on one side, and the bottom half of the next on the other).

Try to find out when, exactly, the power went off with a house full of modern LED or LCD clocks... :-)

Glyn Moody said...

Absolutely - this digital stuff will never catch on....

CRConrad said...

On the contrary -- this is what we get for being "a species so primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea".