Fragile: a story about our not-so-fragile natural systems

Sometimes, all it takes is a one-word prompt to get us writing.

Today’s Daily Post writing prompt: FRAGILE

Photo: A lake formed and bushland regenerated following damage by sandmining.

FRAGILE… it means easily damaged, easily broken, of unsturdy construction. It is a also a word used by environmentalists to create a particular image of natural systems. Thus, it is an emotion-laden word.

Don’t get me wrong, nature is easily damaged. That is different to fragile, though. Let me explain.

Some time in the 1950s or 1960s an area of land near where I now live was trashed by sand mining. I have seen sand mining in action and I have been toured a floating sand mining platform. Going from that I assume the nearby mining left the area denuded of vegetation and with a changed topology. A fragile, natural system decimated… or was it?

Something interesting happened after the miners left. The site was abandoned, left in disuse. But some of the plants that had grown there have very hardy, long-lived seeds and these remained in the soil. Then, over the succeeding decades, those seeds started to grow. The bush returned. Today, that bush is part of the three or so percent of indigenous, Eastern Sydney Banksia Scrub, a tiny remnant of what had once covered the whole region.

Fragile nature? Maybe not

My argument is this: far from being fragile, that ecosystem, that patch of coastal banksia scrub, was tough as nails. Fragile nature? Not here. Anything that can regrow after being devastated is, in my book, far from fragile.

We find the same elsewhere. Not far from that site of less-than-fragile nature is another patch of disused land. It, too, was once used but the community centre there was demolished and a new one built not far away. Like the sandmined site, this area too was abandoned.

I had known the site in the days the community centre was there. I watched nature reclaim that site. I was curious to see what species would return once people abandoned the area. Would exotic weeds, so feared by bushland regenerators and restoration ecologists, take over, smothering and chance for native species to make a comeback under a thick blanket of foliage? Would our indigenous Australian nature prove too fragile when faced with competition by the exotics that restoration ecologists derisively call ‘weeds’?

No. Nature again proved not to be fragile. What started coming back were mainly the native species — the banksias, the Malaleuca. Sure, there were patches of exotic bitou bush (the descedncents of the species planted by the sandminers to provide soil cover to reduce soil erosion, but spreading so fast that they sometimes form a monoculture and shade out other species) as well as lantana, but neither came to dominate and simplify the landscape.

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Photo: Participants in a native plant course at Randwick Sustainability Hub in eastern Sydney plant native shrubs to restore local ecosystems.

What does this teach us?

This teaches us two things: ecosystems can be restored after being used for an industrial purpose like sandmining; nature is not fragile.

I am not making an argument for sandmining or for any other landuse that destroys natural systems. They are too scarce these days to take that approach. What I am arguing for is recognition of the fact that people working in cooperation with nature can restore damaged landscapes. Sure, left alone nature might do the job all by itself. Assisted by people, though, we can accelerate the process and influence just what takes root.

I like to think of this not as helping out fragile nature — as if nature needed our help anyway — but as nature-assisted-design.

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