Senescent Material, Senescent Ideas?

“A buildup of senescent material has deleterious effects on the grassland biome . . . ” Not the most gripping of reads. Translated into normal English, it means a lot of dead grass and stuff has accumulated and is causing problems, or could cause problems. Many glassland ecosystems developed to be grazed, so to speak, so that the plants are trimmed of older material and there’s not a build up of dead grass and brush. Others were burned on a fairly regular basis, which had similar effects, as well as getting rid of ticks and other things. Either way, it put nutrients back into the soil, reduced the danger of fire in dryland areas, and preserved the health of the system in general.

I was thinking about fuel loads and how desperately a certain pasture needs to be mowed or (ideally but really not likely) have a controlled burn to get rid of a decade and more of dead material. The old stuff is choking out the younger growth, nothing grazes it, and soon the place will be dead or go to weeds. Some cacti are already appearing. That’s not a good sign. The owner either doesn’t know what his land needs, or doesn’t care. Or is one of those people who thinks that removing grazing animals from grass for long periods “is good for it. It lets the plants rest.”* The pasture is not healthy. The grass isn’t resting. It’s pining for the fjords. I know because I went out there as far as the edge of the fence and looked. Healthy native grass is not brown in May. Trust me on this.

Right now, society seems to have a bunch of senescent ideas as well. They worked once, but they no longer fit, or they have become brakes rather than fuel. Society would benefit from cleaning out some of that dead growth, from acknowledging that certain economic ideas and habits shaped by out-of-date technology have failed. Some judicious pruning, trimming back what no longer works, perhaps even removing roots as much as possible in a few cases, all should help newer ideas and patterns to grow and thrive.

But it’s a lot easier to rejuvenate a grassland than it is to get rid of dead ideas and habits. A burn at the proper time, or mowing off the dead matter, keeping an eye out for unwanted weedy plants, and grazing on a healthy rotation will all lead to benefits that are often quickly visible. Other improvements need a little time, but springs can come back, grasses replace brush, and long-absent species return now that the habitat has healed. There are lots of books, articles, organizations, and individuals willing and eager to help you restore or preserve a grassland. Society? Not so easy.

People like the old, comfortable ideas. They grew up in that world, and it made sense, still makes sense in a way. No one really enjoys having their apple-cart upset, even if it is to repair that one hole that should have been patched ages ago. Others benefit from the dead idea, because it provides a job, or a sense of power, or allows them to explain why the world is out to get them and owes them favors [cough*Marx*cough]. “I like that government program!” “But what about the people who depend on [whatever]?” “It’s not fair for some to have more and others like me to have less, so it must be the fault of [group]!” “Well, it worked in the 1930’s didn’t it? It will work now.”** “If this organization doesn’t agree to embrace people who [behavior], then you must be part of [long-dead group].”

There’s also the problem of Chesterton’s Fence. If you want to eliminate an old thing, you should know why it was done in the first place, and what good it served. Then, once you can argue that, you will know far better whether that old thing should be removed outright, or reduced, or relocated, or left. For example, US forestry policy, once we had one, was developed by men who trained in Germany. The Germans had lots of plantation forests with uniform crops of species planted for certain goals. Burning was not done. (Also not a climate where forest fires were at all common even before management began.) The Americans learned, and applied what was state-of-the-art knowledge to forestry and timber-cutting in the US. Even after the Germans realized that they were doing it wrong, and modified their forestry practices. “No burn” became a standard in the US after WWII. The super-huge range fires of the late 1800s-early 1900s were bad, so all range fires were to be prevented. We all know the result of that. It doesn’t work in the forests of the American West. They developed with fire, fairly frequent and low burning fire that cleaned out underbrush and dead material. So the fence of “all fires are bad” had a solid foundation on then-current knowledge and practice. Now we have a lot more data, know better how the forests “should” deal with fire, and should remove that fence.

It takes work to manage a grassland well. It takes work to manage a society well, as much as anyone can manage a society or culture. It starts with learning what was done in the past, and as best we can tell why, then going from there. What served a purpose in 1933 might not be appropriate in 2023. Or it could be that what was considered a basic good idea and common sense in the 1890s and 1790 is still a good, common sense idea, and needs to be brought back. When something has held true for thousands of years, despite the best efforts of different groups over time, there might be a reason for it. But if an economic system has not worked for a hundred years in any place it has been tried, it should probably be scrapped. The Gods of the Copybook Headings, and runaway range or forest fires, never go quietly.

*No, plants don’t work like that. Letting the overgrowth get so rank that no water or sun reach the growing parts isn’t good stewardship. See Alan Savory and everyone else who works on “holistic grazing” and high-intensity-short-duration pasture management.

**There’s growing evidence that it didn’t work all that well in the 1930s, once you look past the first three years of the New Deal.


11 thoughts on “Senescent Material, Senescent Ideas?

  1. I was reading the liner booklet for the restored version of Anything Goes. (A recreation of the musical as of its debut in 1934, with the work done in the late 1980s. I had a grim chuckle at one of the essays praising how FDR rescued the American economy, apparently single handedly. That statement aged like fine milk in a heatwave.

    OTOH, to my somewhat limited hearing, the music is wonderful. The London Symphony Orchestra does a pretty good job at being a Broadway musical group. [grin] I’m not familiar with the singers (Kim Criswall, Cris Groenendaal, et al), but they do a great job.

    The title song is strangely appropriate for $CURRENT_DAY, while You’re the Top has some odd notes, though another article annotates the references of these and others. FWIW, the album is EMI 7 49848 2

  2. It seems to me that most of our leaders do not want or do not feel they have to take that extra step to understand the system they are wanting to change. Maybe they were so inculcated with an idea in college or when they were maturing that they no longer believe it is a theory but “know” in their entire being that is how things work and devil take the hindmost. Or maybe they are just power hungry and pushing a certain set of ideas is the easiest way to meet their need for power. I truly hope we won’t need a “brush fire” to resolve the problems in society but, in my mind, that brush fire is looking more and more likely. Mr. Heinlein was prescient when he described this period of history as the “Crazy Years”.

    • A brush fire? We’ve already had one: the Crash of 2008. It didn’t help. What’s coming is a crown-fire — like the Yellowstone firestorm of 1988.

      The problem with humans and Nature is that humans generally don’t understand just how complicated the natural world is. Because of this, the “fight every fire” philosophy has turned out to be damaging in small ways as well as large ones. The rare and vanishing Kirtland’s Warbler prefers to nest in stands of jack pines of a certain height – which is not the jack pine’s maximum height. Thus, the warbler needs dense stands of young pines for successful nesting. In days of yore, such stands of all-the-same-age jack pines were created by fires that burned large areas of land, killed all the adult jack pines and started a bunch of jack-pine seeds growing all at the same time. With no forest fires, the adult pines stayed, and the warblers had nowhere to nest. They declined drastically and nearly vanished as a result.

      Then ornithologists finally figured out the relationship between Kirtland’s Warbler and jack pines. We started cutting the adult pines and massively reseeding, producing the dense stands of young jack pines that the warbler needs. Today, numbers of Kirtland’s Warbler are on the rise again.

  3. Not on point, but–

    The pasture is not healthy. The grass isn’t resting. It’s pining for the fjords. I know because I went out there as far as the edge of the fence and looked. Healthy native grass is not brown in May. Trust me on this.

    Have you tried contacting the county weed board?

    Sometimes they have programs to help deal with stuff like this, both because it’s a major issue for weeds getting established, and because they deal with the folks who deal with fire hazards. (depending on area, they even handle basically a volunteer-to-fix-problems group, or have a reduced cost option for folks who just CAN’T do anything)

    • Our county has a noxious weed ordinance, but it lacks official weed monitors. People are reluctant to call out neighbors due to retaliation, but most of the occupying landowners try to deal with the Canada thistles. (Absentee owned land is fair game for callout.)

      The county did a small scale spraying program, with grant money paying for the labor. I missed out, mostly due to bureaucratic SNAFUs, and I wasn’t sure of the wisdom of their choice of weedkiller. Glyphosate is usually recommended, but one of the master gardeners I knew recommended* 2,4-D with a wetting agent. That works, though the persistence of thistle seeds is a factor. Miss years (life and Murphy contributing), and the problem comes back. Got the t-shirt.

      (*) Apparently, under the right (wrong) circumstances, thistles think glyphosate is a neat fertilizer.

      • The aerial applicator I worked for used 2,4-D and Banvil in the fall, when thistles and other broad-leaf weeds had a big growth surge just before winter. He’s use 2,4-D alone in spring, but it was a very small window because as soon as soybeans began to germinate, that was that.

        • I spot spray (it’s mostly pasture grass and trees, and I avoid our garden) with a blue highlighter to make it easier to see what’s been sprayed. Half-life of the dye in full sun is an hour or so, but it helps. I can get success so long as the thistles are in the rosette stage. Once they’ve bolted, it’s dubious to hopeless.

          I’m not sure what the larger hay operations use; it’s more hay and pasture, since our valley isn’t well suited for row crop and is quite interesting for fixed wing aircraft, but the flatter terrain south of us can support row crops, so they will spray from the air.

  4. I wonder if the definition of ‘expert’ has been changed to ‘thaumaturge whose proclamations redefine reality’. And then I wonder if the people who believe in ‘credentialed’ experts know what ‘reality’ means. It means that the experts don’t get to say what it is.

  5. There is a set of ideas that were always bad but seem never to go away because they appeal to human vanity, lust for power, and even darker things.

    1. There is an ideal pattern of social relationships and any society which doesn’t conform to it is intolerable.

    2. There are special people who know the pattern.

    3. The special people are also smart enough to take a society apart and remake it without catastrophic unintended consequences.

    4. The special people can be trusted with the unlimited power required to do this.

    All of these claims are false, believing them corrupts the heart, and they always lead to disaster. But ever since technology has developed to the point of making 3. plausible, they keep coming back.

    I don’t know what it would take to permanently discredit them culture-wide. Short of that, every generation is going to be fighting a battle for liberty and humanity against the latest mutation of the same evil stupidity.

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