Diversity is healthy

Steve Lekwa

Readers of this column will often see the word, diversity. It’s an important concept in so many ways. It’s one of the primary ways we measure environmental health. The more species that coexist in an ecosystem, the healthier it tends to be. Human development has often led to environmental problems because our “improvements” on the land have too often led to decreased diversity. Diversity is a key to economic health whether it’s in having varied investments or varied kinds of manufacturing. The fewer the kinds of investments, manufacturing jobs, or other industries, the more vulnerable the economy becomes to problems. Recovery also becomes more difficult and spotty when the inevitable downturns come. Our physical health depends on maintaining diverse species of bacteria in our gut biomes. Diversity of experiences is a key to mental health for at least this writer and, I would guess, many others as well.

Life lists are a kind of diversity index. Seeing more species around home is a sign that our local environment is relatively healthy. Adding species to lists adds interest and fun to visiting new places, too. Identifying new trees, flowers, birds, butterflies, and other life forms that I haven’t met is a big part of any trip to a place that I haven’t been before. It’s even more exciting when I stumble across something new right under my nose. That happened a week ago when I was helping with a volunteer trail maintenance activity in the Skunk River Greenbelt south of Story City. We were cleaning up an old dump next to the trail not far from where I grew up. I have probably walked by that spot 1000 times since I was a boy. Yet, there it was – a flower I had never identified before. I’m sure it wasn’t there when I was a boy or even when that area first became part of the county’s greenbelt trail system nearly 40 years ago. The area had been heavily grazed for nearly a century back then, and there were few flowers of any kind. Thankfully, nature can often heal herself and recover some of the diversity she has lost if given enough time and protection from the kinds of activity that destroyed the original diversity.

A gorgeous display of a type of goldenrod that was new to me was in full bloom right there along the trail where I don’t remember seeing it before. It keyed out to a plant called Zig-zag Goldenrod. I spotted a little more of it on a walk a few days later at Hertz Woods just south of Nevada. I wonder if a plant or two survived all those years of grazing and I just failed to notice them, or if a few seeds survived and finally found the right conditions to sprout again. The plants were numerous, bright, beautiful, and right where the description in my Peterson’s Guide to Wild Flowers said they should be.

I just returned from a short trip to visit my grandkids. Their home in central Illinois is not so different from here in central Iowa from an ecological standpoint, but it’s far enough east and south that I often find new species (at least to me) when visiting one of their natural areas. Some trees are difficult to identify even with a field guide, though. Such was the case while visiting a forested acreage my daughter’s in-laws recently bought. The first large oak I saw towered above a thick stand of sugar maples that dominate the under story. It appeared to be a Red Oak – at least the leaves and bark appeared about right. The plentiful crop of acorns that were starting to fall were the wrong shape for Red Oaks, though, and way too large for the similar Black Oak. I couldn’t find any twigs with buds that help to identify oaks since the closest were nearly 50 feet above my head. I’m leaning toward a Shumard Oak (a new one for me) even though the site falls a little north of that tree’s native range. The book cautions that some oaks are prone to hybridization, so there may be some Southern Red Oak in that old tree, as well. I spotted a huge old ash tree and assumed it was a White Ash. My daughter found a younger one nearby and pointed to the corky ridges on the twigs that made both the old tree and its offspring Blue Ashes (another new one for me). I’m proud that she nailed that one without even glancing at a book. Good call, Amy!