Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Suburban Development Transect: Biodiverse Desert to Trash-filled Parking Lot




A transect walking a few miles from the indisturbed desert through new housing developments into the city looks like time played in fast-motion.  The ecologist's glasses allow us to see the moving picture of life rather than limiting our vision to the usual single frame.  By substituting space-for-time, we can put on time-travel goggles.  What do we see?

Normally we visit a site for a day, maybe once a year for intensive longitudinal studies, maybe never again.  With this transect we could see the changes in species composition from unique, biodiverse desert with its gnarled shrubs to fresh asphalt streets, planted landscaping and lawns, and a monoculture of weeds in the bladed 'empty patches' between houses and in right-of-ways.  The stream channels were all filled in and replaced with impoundments or concrete-lined ditches.

Eventually we ended up in the back lot behind a storage unit complex.  The slight depression there caught water and supported some of the tallest native flowering trees we'd seen.  The lot was also used, apparently, as a dumping ground and was filled with all kinds of trash.

Later that night, back in my home neighborhood, I saw dual-images of what the land looked like before and after development.  I saw the rocky ground thick with idiosyncratic cacti and weird four O'clock flowers.  And I saw wide asphalt streets, joggers, tall pine trees, oleander, and grass lawns.  It is so difficult to see the past, I felt that my dual-vision was a kind of X-ray superpower, a new found ability to see through reality to what might have been.  Reality has a way of erasing the possibility that things could have turned out differently.

A nice walk in the wilderness can sometimes substitute space for space, so that you can see your neighborhood space as the absence of native wildlife instead of the presence of cars, roads, and lawns.  I suppose some people see nature as empty, and even I see it this way sometimes too: some areas are devoid of active communal life.  For example, on this particular transect we saw no rabbits, no ground squirrels, and no other mammals in the wild.  I don't think we saw a lizard until we got to the rock walls of suburbia.  But I was amazed at the botanical emptiness of our developed landscapes: out of the more than 70 native species of wildflowers and Chihuahan desert shrubs, I saw less than 5 after we crossed the first freshly paved asphalt road.

Of course, there are a diverse mix of landscaping plants, many of them native somewhere, if not in the Chihuahan desert.  Interestingly, the mexican palo verde seems to have escaped cultivation and is now growing up into the wild watercourses that snake off the mountains.  Few other weeds seem able to invade intact ecosystems, although Russian thistle is omnipresent wherever the ground has been cleared.

I think, though, that if the transect had continued further into the past/future, through abandoned neighborhoods or restored areas, the native wildflowers and shrubs would reappear.  Especially with the rains this monsoon, they seem quite happy where they are, and old pipelines have a nice covering of desert marigold, creosote, and javalena bush.  I don't really feel that the desert is destroyed by development...maybe in the long-term view it just goes away for awhile, or changes shape for a spell.  Until the wave of bulldozers breaks and subsides, the desert remains as potential...

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