Earthworms’ Castings

By Jean Ponzi

Keystoners, Leveraging

Like the piece at the top that secures an arch, a Keystone Species is one who holds together the structure (and health, and vitality) of their community of diverse individuals and groups.

Keystone Species are important — and everyone else in the ecosystem is too. But our Keystones uniquely contribute to their interdependent circle of life, so that species diversity grows a resilient community’s strength.

This understanding is not very old. It was 1966 (I was in 6th grade) when ecologist Robert Treat Paine took all the predator starfish out of one pond and compared what he observed to an unaltered pond nearby. In the pond without starfish, their main mussel species prey quickly crowded out seven “subordinate primary space-holding species,” who in turn maintained the habitat structure for 300+ other species in the mussel beds. That’s a lot of action in one tidal pond.

Paine called this study Food Web Complexity and Species Diversity. It changed our understanding of impacts between predators and prey — and moved Ecology, still a very young science, out into the field where observing real living communities taught us humans more about the world we’re in than only poking and testing stuff in labs.

Oaks are our region’s tree Keystone Species, as are the Salix and Prunus families, our native willows and wild plums. These trees will support the greatest variety of species of caterpillars, the moth and butterfly larvae who in turn feed the songbirds we enjoy around our human places. Birds of prey like hawks and owls enjoy them too. Everybody gets to eat.

If you want to support and help restore biodiversity — essential for ecological health — you’ll want to plant and tend native Keystone Species. Plant oaks and watch your place come alive. This is Keystone power at work.

Leverage Points are an element in System Dynamics, the formal understanding of life in terms of flows and exchanges, that we can track and model in our best efforts to (predictively, responsively) live in systems like Earth’s Climate.

Systems savvy was hugely advanced by biophysicist Donella Meadows, whose work (from the1980s until her way too early 2001 death) was known as much for nurturing positive outcomes as it was for exploring the science behind the kinds of global dilemmas we’re (finally) paying attention to because they’re (finally) in our headlines today.

“Dana” Meadows showed how patterns of problematic behavior — which we typically blame on individual persons – result from the systems in which our lives and behavior evolve. In the Systems Thinking view, you need to change the system to create the situation where behavior can significantly change. It’s a goes-around, comes-around thing for sure.

She intensely considered Leverage Points: where to put one’s effort for the best shot at effecting systemic change. Meadows identified nine kinds of Leverage Points, in an order of effectiveness. No one silver bullet, but a system of understanding how to interact with complex (often seeming unpredictable) systems, toward restoring healthy, balancing kinds of change.

We humans have, frankly, evolved to become an Invasive Species. We impose ourselves and gobble and whack everything, everywhere. We respect no limits. We exploit and consume and plunder our home — our Earth, who has the capacity to support all life quite nicely, thank you — and then we get all ga-ga-GO for moving to Mars.

We are way not the best and the brightest here.

But we have good hearts that keep pumping to support us and represent capacity for fellow-feeling, potentially true.

What can we learn from our Keystone relations, the Oaks? From Leverage Points in dynamic systems?

Can we flip our Homo sapiens script and grow up to be a force for restoration? Hmmm?

Jean Ponzi hosts conversations on environmental stuff, in her Earthworms podcasts from KDHX St. Louis Independent Media. To explore these ideas more, read The Nature of Oaks by entomologist Doug Tallamy, and listen to anything you can find where Dana Meadows is speaking.