I Am Nature

September 21, 2016
I Am Nature

By Dr. Cory Christopher, Director of the Conservation & Stewardship 

I recently chopped off a friend’s arms. It wasn’t something that I expected to do when I woke up that morning, but I had known the day was coming for a while – I just didn’t expect it so soon. My friend had become old and haggard looking, and although he and I agreed long ago that I would let him live as long as he was able to hold himself up, we never agreed to let him keep all his limbs.

I did it quickly and cleanly, and made an effort not to injure the rest of him. Appendages were cut, and the mess was cleaned up with more than a little shame. The next morning, he was standing in the yard, holding a twitchy squirrel with one of his stumps. He looked down right pitiful, but he had a certain ruggedness to him that other dogwoods just didn’t have, as if at any minute he might start a fight.

I do this. I assign personalities to plants, and my opinions of those plants are forever changed based on what attributes I’ve assigned them. Good plants like a bashful Trillium or an enthusiastic coneflower are treated kindly. Mean or aggressive plants are destroyed, like the pushy bush honeysuckle that lived beside my compost pile. This may sound myopic or even down right cruel, but I like to think of myself as implementing some brand of ecological karma.

This was why it was so hard to gas up the chainsaw. The dogwood was old and gnarly, sure, but he put out a small handful of perfectly white flowers every spring from his single living branch. He faithfully held our bird feeder and shaded my daughter’s sand box without complaint, and he was – he still is – a good, good tree.

This may sound like an odd way of introducing myself, but my emotional conflict with the dogwood tree is illustrative of my philosophy towards conservation. As a scientist, I realize that nature as a system has no emotions. It is, after all, merely a series of chemical reactions and exchanges of energy between entities. Yes, animals think and many of them have emotions, but these feelings are mediated ultimately by chemistry. Plants may grow and move, but they certainly don’t think. As a human, though, I need a little more romance. The tidy picture my science mind paints feels so, well, wrong. Far from being able to isolate myself and measure nature from afar, I can’t escape the feeling of myriad intangible threads uniting me with the world around me.

With all this interconnectedness – all this coming and going of energy - is it so odd to extend our compassion to plants? According to physicists, there are infinite alternative versions of our universe out there; potentially millions of dimensions in which I am actually a hat. Given this, the idea that plants have feelings seems not only reasonable, but likely.

But back to my philosophy towards conservation. I fully understand the need to conserve natural resources, but I do not believe the driving force behind this should only be sustainable human development. This plays a role, of course, but my passion for nature preceded my understanding of conservation. My drive to protect wildlife and wild places was born from an innate sense that I am nature. My threads connect to the trees outside my office window, to the pesky wasps that continually build nests above the light outside my door. I am a part of this. All of this.

This feeling of inclusion also means that I have a right to exist. I am no less important than those wasps, but I do believe that my existence should not preclude the existence of everything else. As but one bearer of threads in this wonderful tangle of life, I have a duty to consider others - especially those species with tenuous holds on the web. I am excited to begin this chapter of my life by leading the new Center for Conservation & Stewardship. It is a position that will afford me the opportunity to have a broader impact on the natural world.

At the end of the day, the guilt I feel about disarming my dogwood friend is assuaged somewhat when I walk the grounds at the Nature Center. From the monarch larvae nibbling milkweed leaves to the beefy bullfrogs hurriedly jumping beneath lotus leaves when I walk by, I see the good in what we’re doing, and I am filled with optimism and hope that we can re-tie those threads that have been broken between us and the rest of the natural world. ■

Dr. Cory Christopher is the first Director of the new Center for Conservation & Stewardship. He holds a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Ecology from the University of Georgia and a PhD in Biological Sciences from the University of Cincinnati. His doctoral research studied the interaction and effects of Amur honeysuckle and white-tailed deer on herbs in a deciduous forest (at Cincinnati Nature Center), and he did his post-doctorate work at Washington University in St. Louis. He has been an adjunct faculty member at both University of Cincinnati and Miami University, and worked at the Cincinnati Zoo where he managed School and Graduate Programs and their teen leadership program, Zoo TRIBE. Most recently, he served in two roles at the University of Cincinnati: Director of UC Forward, which facilitates cross-departmental collaboration, and Director of Undergraduate Student Research.

Photo © Derek Ramsey