Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Plants and People

Plants and People

For more than a million years, plants and human beings have lived together on earth. From the beginning, they were both part of the "web of life," the beautifully balanced natural pattern in which all living things depend on one another. Only after man became civilized did he begin to feel that plants were to be grown for his food, shelter, and pleasure or else to be removed or avoided.

The first steps toward civilization were taken when Stone Age man discovered that he could cultivate the seeds, fruits, and roots he liked to eat, instead of gathering them only where he found them growing wild. When he became a farmer, he settled down and began to change his environment. Since then for thousands of years  man has been cutting forests, clearing fields, draining swamps, building cities, but at the same time caring for and encouraging much of the green world around him.

Of course, his life depended on that green world. As we have seen, there would be no life on earth without chlorophyll: it harnesses the sun's energy and starts the chemical processes that convert minerals and gases into the materials that make up the bodies of plants and animals. All the oxygen we breathe is produced by plants. All our food comes, directly or indirectly, from plants. They provide clothing and shelter, as well as medicine for our physical ills and balm for our spirits.

We still depend on the green world, and yet we are steadily destroying it. There is now hardly a place on earth that man has not touched in some way. And in the places where he has been established for a long time, his cities are spreading in all directions, swallowing up the wild spaces. Our precious green
areas are shrinking away. Even the farms and orchards and pasture lands are disappearing. While the human population is growing, the plant population is decreasing; and if this dislocation of nature's balance goes much further, the plants will eventually be unable to support the people.

Even worse for plants than the loss of growing space is the devastation caused by the poisonous materials that now pollute air, water, and earth. Every city has a canopy of smog a hanging cloud of soot, oil, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, or ozone  bad for the breathing processes of both plants and people. These smogs are spreading out from their urban centers, killing plants miles away. In the area surrounding Ontario, Canada, smelter fumes have damaged aspen foliage nearly seventy miles distant. Pine trees in the mountains sixty miles from Los Angeles are being killed, apparently by that city's drifting smog.

Factories all over the country are sending clouds of poisonous smoke into the air and masses of poisonous chemical waste into the rivers. Sometimes these poisons kill plants quickly and directly. Sometimes they kill the pollinating insects or the birds, fish, or other animals that are necessary for a balance of nature. Sometimes temperatures of air or water are so changed that they destroy both plants and animals. Tender plants are already dying out in many places, and eventually even our toughest weeds will no longer be able to survive.

It is a terrifying prospect that a world which has been evolving for more than three hundred million years may be destroyed in one or two generations. But destruction is not inevitable. If we will clean up the air and water, and do it soon enough, the plants will survive. We have seen the remarkable vigor of our city weeds, and in the country we find over and over again examples of nature's wonderful power to renew herself. The plants will take care of themselves if we give them half a chance. All they need is space, clean air, clean water, and clean soil; with these, both the country and the city can be green.

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