Albert’s Fun Fact Science Corner: Stasis and Succession

White sand piles high on the shores, dunes rising hundreds of feet above the lake. Pale green seas of beach grass wave slowly back and forth on the sides of the dune facing away from the water. Occasionally a poplar pokes its spindly branches up through the sand, half-buried and outstretched, leaves dancing noisily in the cool offshore breeze. Far in the distance, only visible through gaps between the dunes is a dense forest of maple, oak, and pine. Lake Michigan was my playground as a child. Summers were spent hurtling down its massive dunes, feet barely touching sand as I let gravity pull me towards the water.

Due to the rotation of the Earth, wind in the Lake Michigan region most commonly comes from the northwest. When it sweeps across the lake, it picks up speed and particles of sand, piling them up most dramatically at the lake’s southeast corner. Dunes form all along its eastern shore, and when they pop up they are quickly colonized by Beach Grass and Sand Reed. These plants grow quickly, capitalizing on the ample sunshine available on a barren beach dune. The roots of these grasses help stabilize the dune, making sure it doesn’t get blown away. Once a dune is stable for long enough, trees might have time to take root. At first, only small trees like poplars can survive in the shifting, often dry sand. The poplars’ roots stabilize the dune further, allowing larger trees like Jack Pine to take root. Pines are fairly quick-growing trees and form a canopy over a matter of years. The pines shade out the grasses and smaller trees; now void of the light they came for, the “pioneer species” like Beach Grass start to die out. In the long run, trees like American Beech and Red Maple form larger, denser canopies. Ferns move in, doing well with little light and thriving in the empty space where the grasses once lived. Pawpaws start to sprout up, dropping their sweet fruit to the ground for deer to feast on. Birds accidentally bring in new plants and seeds as they settle in the trees. Barren sand becomes filled with life.

Modern ecologists call this process “succession.” One biological community is “succeeded” by another in a chain of changes that often culminates in a “climax state” of maximum biodiversity. But these “climax states” aren’t always stable. Because of fires, floods, earthquakes, or whatever the local disaster-du-jour is, “climax states” will often become uninhabited, opening back up for pioneer species to move in. In many ways, a successional community always contains its negation. The Beach Grass, by stabilizing the dunes, brings about its own shading-out. The Poplars bring about their own end by making the dunes habitable to the Pines. The Pines invite competition from the Maples.

Ecosystems that don’t participate in successional models will often be somehow self-reinforcing. They will have some quality that keeps them from moving forward towards some future successional state. For example, the Great Plains get significantly less rainfall than is required for a forest. Grasses are not nearly as thirsty as trees. The great plains also have a plethora of large grazing herbivores like bison, pronghorn, and deer. These animals quickly eat away at tree saplings, keeping trees rare across the grassy expanse. Wildfires often burn across large swathes of the landscape. Grasses keep most of their biomass below ground, keeping stores of energy so they can spring up quickly soon after a fire. For a tree, fire represents a greater loss of biomass, and it likely won’t survive long enough after an intense fire to regrow enough leaves to sustain itself.

Change is brought about by instability. Remove a stabilizing factor, and change is bound to occur. The redwood forests of the Sierra Nevada in California rely on wildfires to maintain their ecology. These wildfires remove established shrubs, allowing pioneer species to fill in the understory after fires. Due to fire suppression efforts by colonizers, we have allowed shrubs to grow in the understories of redwood forests unchecked. Instead of being occasionally reset, the shrubs in the Sierra Nevadas have been allowed to grow higher and higher. Once fire inevitably comes, due to lightning or an especially unfortunate gender reveal party, there is way more fuel ready to burn than there otherwise would be. These modern wildfires burn much hotter and for much longer than the area is accustomed to. The Giant Sequoias, which have been a historical constant for the area, can’t always handle such temperature and can end up dead or severely scarred. Plant matter can burn so hot in these fires that it causes an impenetrable layer of burnt sap to form on the ground. This can be very bad for an endangered tree with a minimal range. The sequoias can have a hard time establishing themselves in soil that has been so intensely scorched. Altered soil chemistry can drastically change the makeup of understory plants, which can in turn change soil chemistry further. When one stabilizing factor, fire, is removed, succession is set in motion, this time in new trajectories. It has broken free of the cycle which once contained it.

Graphic by Michal Miller

In his seminal work, Das Kapital, Karl Marx engages in an investigation of the political economy. Many a Reedie certainly have their takes on what communism is and in what ways it is to be brought about, but Marx’s model of communism looks a lot like succession. He says, “Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.” Communism is the inevitable outcome of a world that contains its own negation. Marx argued that capitalism was such a society. By relegating the working classes to truly deplorable conditions, capitalism was just asking for the day they insisted on change. And yet, on a global scale, this change has not yet come. It seems that Marx was wrong about capitalism. It is not in a successional mode of being but in a sort of stasis. Or at least, if it is in a successional mode of being, it certainly does not seem to be succeeding for the worker like Marx imagined. Instead, capital grips more tightly around us. Jeff Bezos shoots himself to the moon off of money exploited from the workers who sell off their bodies and piss in bottles lest they waste company time in the bathroom, money from a captive audience that increasingly relies on the availability of goods being shipped to their door. Amazon has been so gracious as to set up amazon lockers so even the homeless can be marketed too.

If we are not in a successional model where the success of the worker is inevitable, we must be in some sort of stable system. If we want out, it is not enough to believe in the steady march of progress or in aimless populist outrage. Instead, we must look to the stabilizing factors of our ecosystem. We must find the trees which shade out the undergrowth, and we must burn so hot that not even the oldest redwood can survive.

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