Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Natural Labyrinth

I was reading recently about the ideas of wildlife corridors. Conservationists have been floating the idea around for thirty years or more that the encroachment of habitat can be alleviated by--if large open spaces are out of the question--then by providing a lot of smaller spaces that are interconnected. When there is continuity between environments such that predators can roam, pollen can spread, even where species can migrate long distances, then the impact of human presence can be significantly reduced because the forest creatures are not uncomfortably cornered into shrinking squares of space. Wildlife corridors from Yellowstone Park to the Yukon and along tiger and elephant routes in India are being pursued (no doubt with varying degrees of ineffectiveness).

It's been a (reasonably asked) open question as to just how successful these corridors actually are in preserving species and their habit(at)s. Last year, a study out of UCSB was published in Science (sorry, the link is a report of a report) showing significant improvements in biodiversity as they measured it in controlled swatches of North Carolina woodland. Evidently, that's the first quantitative report of the positive effects of functional connectivity, even though organizations have been acting on that hypothesis for a couple decades.

Ordinarily the idea of pushing a policy based on speculation would really annoy me, but these are policies with pleasant side effects. Living close to minor, local versions of wildlife arteries has really improved my quality of life. The upside of my crappy neighborhood is the illusion of seclusion. The view from my back porch (on the right) occludes most of the neighbors. If you look closely, you can see children crossing the stream on a log. My daughter loves to play down there, and regularly drags her little sister and her neighborhood friends on expeditions "down the bank". (Only one of those kids is mine.)

The woods, such as they are, extend between back yards along two streets. Turn ninety degrees to the right and you can wave at the neighbors across the way in the winter. If you go far enough along the direction of the photo, there is a road to cross, but once you do that, you can meander westward behind the scenes until you get into a state forest. If you cross the street that bounds the east end of the stream, then you're in another sizable chunk of sparsely molested wooded area, cut through only with a railroad and a rarely traveled road or two (and dotted with official and unofficial landfills, and harassed by dorks on ATVs). I've seen deer, foxes, and coyotes that've managed to make their way along the mangy appendage of the state forest to my back yard.

Here is a picture that I took on a walk with my daughter in December through the eastern half of the woodland dumbell. That hill you see was completely forested last spring, but it's being cleared for new developments. McMansions probably, judging from the neighborhood on the other side of the hill. The higher ones should be able to see the roof of the new Wal-Mart that is currently being built a ways down below. [Nah, I don't think it's high enough in hindsight.] Can't stop progress. Maybe those people will work there when the balloon payment on their creative mortgage hits.

If you were ingenious at solving those IQ-test spatial projection problems, you might enjoy crystallography as a hobby. Luckily for me, I was only all right at them, and I'm able to get my kicks from more primitive versions of morphology. One neat thing that's possible in three dimensions is bicontinuity. If you were walking on the monkey bars below (imagine an extended network of them), you could get to any point in the cube. You could do the same thing if you could travel the space between the lines. A lot of bicontinuous structures occur naturally on a microscopic scale. Any system of immiscible phases can have this property, but you can also do cool shit with it on purpose. The picture on the right is a representation of an inverse opal, taken from somebody's presentation on photonic band gap structures. It's made up of the spaces in between close-packed spheres. You can actually fabricate structures like this in the lab by slowly depositing tiny glass balls from a suspension and then filling up the spaces in between.
I love monkeying with the philosophical ideas of bicontinous structures. A viable way to mix civiliztion and nature is one agreeable way to consider it, although as a practical matter, you need to add a third dimension of bridges for the bears and elk to cross the highways that cut through the wildlife corridors. But you can go more universal too. I'm pleased that nature may contain hidden but as yet unseeable dimensions, and I want to imagine networks of activity invisibly occuring in this weblike alternate continuum. We can map our brains like this too maybe, cognitive labyrinths of the human experience, something apart and yet intimately close to the inanimate network of stones and trees. It's even a fine interstitial universe in which to pretend spirits can cavort when the light is just right.

Even if it's better that we mostly confine ourselves in the man-made phases, it's good to know there are others.


twiffer said...

here. a gift for you.

more comments, likely, later. when i don't have a headache.

hipparchia said...





what a lovely view, what a great place to be a kid!

i loved this essay, and yes i love 3-d, wilderness/civilization labyrinths. thanks for a real day-brightener.

kcllolg: k.c. and the sunshine band LOL-ing

Keifus said...

Thanks hipp. I've got to tell you that the photo is very carefully framed. It's a long skinny space and the camera is looking down it the long way. But yeah, it's really great that it's there.

(skimming, your rep seems to take a curious range of stances on env. issues)

Yay, rocks! (gotta download a new viewer for those, looks like.)

hipparchia said...

i don't think he's mine. i used to drive through there a lot, and saw the bear crossing underpasses, but never saw any bears. i'd always wondered if they actually used those tunnels.

that's still a great patch of woods you've got there, no matter how it's shaped.

myshmd: my sharona, m.d.

hipparchia said...

ps.. i love the ever-changing about mes.

jnumbse: just the numbers, please

Keifus said...

My subversive way to increase the hit count. Did you catch all eight? (nine?) I'll add to 'em as I think of anything.


twiffer said...

should just run on quicktime.

Keifus said...

Still a relatively new computer at work, hadn't downloaded all the various viewers yet. All fixed now. (I miss having all sorts of resources at my fingers.)

hipparchia said...

not sure how many i've caught, four or five, at least. my favorites so far are the 4.87 one and the one that popped up this time, my head is a barrelful of monkeys.

doktvs: dorks on tv