Reducible complexity

Marc Pastorek photo eunice-10-30-2014

Aerial photo of the Cajun Prairie Restoration Project in Eunice taken October 30, 2014 by Marc Pastorek. The bottom left white area (southwest corner) is the parking lot, while the white line encircling the perimeter is the paved trail with benches located at each corner. This 10 acre plot contains a 25 year old restoration effort by the Cajun Prairie Habitat Preservation Society with more than 250 species of native plants.

Among the more recent accomplishments of science are:

• The human genome project compels us that all life is related, e. g., we all have the same genetic code.
• Ecology demonstrates that all life is connected, e. g., a single human organism actually is made of as many as 1000 species of organisms.
• Reducible complexity, e. g., the eye as an organ as well as the prairie as a system (see for a discussion). Irreducible complexity is a tenet of ‘intelligent design/creation science.’

This latter topic is the focus of this essay. The human eye and the prairie ecosystem provide excellent examples. For more details, consider for a generalized introduction to the concept as a debate. First let us consider the eye.

The human eye is extremely complex. It functions as a window to the world in that it provides the data used by the brain to create images. I used to describe it as working much like a camera with a brain attached but now we have cameras with brains attached that use digital technology instead of early silver technology. The digital image can be further modified by the computer in the camera or moved to another more powerful computer for potentially millions of modifications. Thus these new cameras with their brains are even better examples for comparison to the eye.

In humans, a thousand different kinds of eyes can see and form images that our brains can interpret!!! Andreas Wagner’s book (2014) entitled ‘Arrival of the Fittest: Solving Evolution’s Greatest Puzzle’ emphasizes the law of unintended consequences in that it provides examples of molecules (DNA, RNA and proteins) evolving to form thousands of varieties with a significant fraction of them retaining the ability to perform a specific function while others develop new and novel ‘unintended’ functions. The eyes of humans take this concept to the organ level, and we see thousands of kinds of human eyes—each able to provide sufficient information to the brain to permit the brain to interpret images that can be used to ascertain what is being viewed. When examining the ability of the eye to provide information for the brain, the quantity and quality of the information can be measured in a number of ways. Statistically, these abilities can be quantified and qualified and distributed along a parabolic expression known as the standard normal curve. Thus while the thousands of kinds of eyes work to some degree, we can assume that the majority of them can be defined as normal using the methods that we use to measure them, i. e. the Snellen chart, Ishihara charts, etc.

How complex are our eyes? There are many muscles involved in making visual images: 6 muscles that move the eye, 2 muscles that open the lids, a circular muscle that constricts and dilates the pupil, and a circular muscle that changes the shape of the lens for focusing. Each of these muscles is controlled by a different part of the brain, and in some cases, the parts are radically different, e. g., the nerves that control the movement of the eye (3 separate cranial nerves, III, IV and VI in the somatic efferent system) versus the autonomic nerves that control the iris diaphragm encircling the pupil (both parasympathetic and sympathetic nerves in the autonomic efferent system). All of these muscles must be coordinated in their movement by the brain in order for the eyes to provide useful information to the occipital lobes for interpretation and image generation.

The normally functioning eye is measured in a number of ways. The most common is the designation of the emmetropic eye, which is defined with an acuity of 20/20—an eye that detects at 20 feet what a designated normal eye detects at 20 feet using one of the Snellen Charts. Of course, this measurement is like many other physiological measurements, where the range of measurements can be represented as a normalized curved with the emmetropic eye as the mean, which means there are lots of eyes that are not normal (both better and worse—the worse get all the press) and yet remain able to provide enough information to the brain to permit the brain to construct an image. It is in these anomalies (mainly the worse ones have been studied) that the eye clearly demonstrates reducible complexity. Literally a thousand variations exist in human eyes—we often refer to these varieties as things that can go wrong and do go wrong with the eye, and yet the eye is capable of doing its job; however, the job may be less acceptable and require remediation in our society.

Some of the anomalies include:
1. the eyeball is too long or too short (myopia or hyperopia)
2. the lens is too weak or too strong (myopia or hyperopia)
3. the lens or cornea is wrinkled or abnormally curved (astigmatism)
4. the lens is cloudy (cataracts)
5. the intraocular fluid is under too high pressure (glaucoma)
6. quivering of the eye (nystagmus)
7. abnormal cones (color blindness—a dozen kinds)
8. damaged retina
9. diabetic nerves
10. macular degeneration.

The eye is also supplied with lachrymal (lacrimal) glands that make tears delivered by lacrhrymal ducts and drained by lachrymal canals into a nasolachrymal duct into the nasal passage. Thus the eye is constantly being washed, lubricated and nourished. Dysfunction leads to dry eye symptoms and conjunctivitis. Internal fluid dynamics (aqueous humor and vitreous humor in their respective chambers) and the tear system are dynamic unto themselves, and in this they demonstrate that human eyes are actually several systems interacting over a lifetime.

The retina (sensory part) of the human eye is an intricate structure made of 6 layers with rods and cones and a variety of nerves served by a rich blood supply. This complex tissue is highly susceptible to a number of kinds of insult. Through a complex process of photoreception, electrical impulses are generated by the photosensitive cells (rods and cones) and neurons and sent to the brain where they are sorted and used to create an image. The brain works with what information it gets and relies heavily on accumulated information to create images that obscure our blind spot and permit images to have focal points and 3 dimensions. Although we usually depend on both eyes working in concert to generate 3- dimensional images, a single eye’s image does contain information, e. g., relative image sizing, that permits the brain to create a 3-dimensional image. When examining the embryology of the eye, the formation of eye sacs and optic nerves directly off of the brain stem is obvious.

Color vision is a remarkable development as rod-like cells were coopted to function as cones in color photoreception. While some humans lack color vision altogether, most humans have some color vision; however, males often are red-green colorblind or color weak. However, these individuals have what I call a superpower in that they can do things that we normal humans cannot. For example, some of them can see what would be camouflaged to those with normal vision—a handy talent if you are looking for enemy encampments in aerial photographs or looking for animals or plants relying on camouflage to thwart predators. Further, while humans see visible light (ROYGBIV), other animals have different color spectra. Mosquitoes see colors in the infrared spectrum (otherwise perceived by our thermoreceptors), while bees see colors in the ultraviolet spectrum (all those yellow flowers in the prairie are actually ultraviolet blues with distinctive markings in their vision. But butterflies take the prize since they are credited with seeing not only the visible spectrum of humans but also both the ultraviolet and infrared spectra. Just color vision itself provides a wealth of information on the evolution of vision, and I really enjoy topics where physics, aka the study of electromagnetic waves, is intertwined with biology.

The point is the eye and the brain evolved together as a unit. Numerous papers have been written to illustrate the intimate way that they work together as well as literally thousands of examples across the animal world where eyes and brains have co-opted parts of the skeletal and muscular and glandular systems in order to accomplish their functions. Literally thousands of kinds of eyes are known, and that is not even mentioning the thousands of kinds of eyes that are found in humans. Thus the complexity of the human eye is evident and evidently the result of thousands of variations on the evolutionary theme of an eye both within our species and across the millions of animal species, with the differences between human and chimp eyes almost imperceptible and for the most part hidden within the tremendous variation of the human eyes.

The prairie is even more complex as it contains thousands of species of plants and animals (in the air, soil and water), each representing a distinctive evolutionary line as well as possessing thousands of reducibly complex organs. The prairie is a community of organisms not dissimilar to our bodies, which are now known to be ecological communities. The prairie itself appears to be a reducibly complex structure in that we can literally take it apart piece by piece all the while appreciating many of the contributions of each piece. All these pieces are interacting all the while filling ecological niches that are literally entwined in space and time. The prairie is literally destroyed when it is plowed—a literal ripping of ecosystem into shreds. Our attempts to restore this habitat literally involve reintegrating these pieces into a network and waiting to see if they will interact and begin the reconstruction of the ecosystem. Our restorations are meager compared to the original ecosystems, but they appear to work in ways that are similar to the original ecosystems—unless it gets too dry or too wet or too hot or too cold or some other extreme or combinations of extremes—then the system shows signs of stress, and fragile species literally disappear. With enough stress, e. g., an explosion of exotics, the restorations begins to function less and less like the original ecosystem. This simple comparison does not link the need for pollinators and other animals into our discussion, but their presence and roles are likewise reducibly complex.

Reducing complex phenomena is a central function of science. Whereas in medicine, the focused effort is on finding every single signaling molecule in order to give potential therapies for treating diseases, we, in ecology and prairie restoration, are involved in understanding the intricate links between organisms and between organisms and their environment. Only then can we begin to make headway in our goal of rehabilitating habitat. In both medicine and ecology, we are just beginning to make discoveries that will permit us to make better decisions. Understanding that all living things are related and connected is a start, while appreciating that the reducible complexity in nature is a result of the co-optation of seemingly unrelated structures is a central theme in the evolution of life and communities of life within ecosystems.

Posted by M. F. Vidrine

The Multidimensional Garden


Cajun Prairie Gardens: The blooming of Asclepias tuberosa (Cajun Prairie Butterflyweed)–a native to this prairie–there are 3 plants in this 6 foot wide clump of orange–these were planted from root cuttings in 1996 and are now 20 years old.


In my 2010 book, The Cajun Prairie: A Natural History, I presented a conceptual garden that I called the multidimensional garden, aka the Einstein-Newton Garden, in an effort to begin re-examining the natural garden as a man-made construct that has definable dimensions, which would enhance the use of the garden in the classroom.

Here is the excerpt from the book:

“The paradigm of restoring prairie habitat was developed by Aldo Leopold
(Leopold 1949 and 1999), and we continued his paradigm. It should be expanded
to gardens of all types from suburban lawns to farms to landscapes (Jackson 1999,
Vidrine and Borsari 1998, 1999, Semar and Vidrine 2000 and Vidrine et al. 2001a).
The Cajun Prairie Restoration Project has served for the last decade as a model
for at least 10 prairie restoration projects. The projects have ranged from small
postage stamp prairie gardens to a hundred hectares. However, there is a great
need for more and larger projects. The Cajun Prairie is not only one of the rarest
communities on Earth, but it is one that is scantily known. If there ever existed a
habitat that might be labeled with a superlative in respect to being threatened and
endangered from extinction, the Cajun Prairie would be a prime example.

Habitat restoration, like building a garden, is a multidimensional construct.
As in 2 dimensions, one initially constructs a puzzle-like layout of plants to be
planted. A random distribution of seed over a diverse piece of property will most
likely result in the wasting of a tremendous amount of very valuable and scarce
seed. The third dimension is height—seed selection is important as plants vary
greatly in height. The fourth dimension is time—plants mature in varying amounts
of time, they bloom at different times, and they respond to different kinds of stress
at different times in different ways. The first four dimensions are the ‘space-time
fabric’ of the restoration. The fifth dimension is interaction—plants interact with
other plants, fungi, bacteria, protists, and animals (this reminds me of the impact
of gravity on the ‘space-time fabric’). The collection of interactions is extremely
important. A simple example would be a butterfly garden—butterflies will be few
unless host plants for caterpillars are planted in abundance. Planting just nectar
plants yields a garden with many possible visitors but few residents (Vidrine and
Hazelton-Robichaux 2003). The sixth dimension is sustainability. Whereas the
garden is generally not considered sustainable and as such is replanted nearly every
year, restoration takes on this 6th dimension. The 7th dimension is succession. As
quickly as a sustainable system is created, it begins a process called succession.
The selection of climax sere plants is essential in order to impact a succession
toward a particular habitat type. When old fields in southern Louisiana enter
succession, the result is usually unlike any nearby natural habitat—the common
result is a hodge-podge of rugged natives and even more rugged exotics that
collectively provide little habitat for associates like animals, etc.

Understanding the seven dimensions of habitat restoration is a key to success
(I often present this to students as the General Relativity theory of gardening
where the ‘space-time fabric’ is affected by the gravity of interacting species—an
Einstein/Newton garden). Each habitat is different. Prairies on different soils or at different latitudes are different. A restoration model for a place is just that—a model for a place that deals with the 7 dimensions in that space and time. The model for a particular place is simply an outline for any other place, and each model must be built upon its own regards. Like multidimensional chess, the game of restoration requires that the restoration ecologist play with several steps aheadin mind—otherwise, it is checkmate before the 5th dimension is in play.”

In summary:
1-3 = length, width, height = the traditional definition of space, including topography of the landscape, where dry and wet areas are noted, as well as grassland vs forest. This aspect is the obvious in landscaping planning.
4 = time = the everchanging floralscape is obvious to all, and in fact, these changes can be readily monitored and used to describe the habitat—it is also relatively easy to measure (the phenology of flowing plants, flight seasons of insects, birds, etc.).
5 = interaction of organisms = these are key elements and number in the millions, if not billions, even in a microprairie, and include intraspecific and interspecific interactions occurring in the atmosphere, rhizosphere and hydrosphere, e. g., pollination, symbiosis, predation, mimicry, etc.
6 = sustainablility—an aspect of non-traditional gardens—the development of permanence as in restoration projects including reforestation projects.
7 = ecological succession—an enhancement of dimension 4 (time) in that this process has a ‘mind’ of its own and proceeds toward a goal—the climax community—and as such is actually measurable.

Within this model, we can incorporate biogeochemical cycles, e. g., water, nitrogen and carbon. We can also take an ecological approach and define the ecological niches of the members of the community in the garden.

Why undergo this program of reducing the garden to a series of definable processes? In presenting the garden as a viable and sustainable system, a didactic method (using a scientific approach to teaching and learning) in which we dissect the garden and put it back together will allow the viewing of the essential elements required to construct such a garden. The devil is in the details is a good way to think about this. Small changes in the garden make for dramatic and growing changes in the garden over time. A simple extension of the garden to nature itself is the ultimate goal—not only can we restore nature one garden at a time but also we can use the garden to explain how nature works and further we can begin to see what the minimum actions on our part may be in order to develop a sustainable planet.

The Cajun Prairie Gardens and the Cajun Prairie Restoration Project in Eunice are such gardens. It is my intention to present these gardens in this light so as to assist you in understanding what I see in these gardens.

Doug Tallamy’s (2015) presentation greatly improves on the 2011 presentation that I attached to the last essay; it is in my opinion the best natural landscaping presentation of the year thus far. Although his focus is upon eastern woodland habitats and not prairies, the basic concepts are the same. Most residential areas in the prairie look just like those in the eastern forest—a lawn with a few exotic trees and shrubs—whereas they could be diverse grasslands either in miniature or on a grand scheme: His talk on biodiversity is excellent:

Posted by M. F. Vidrine

Natural Landscaping



Two views of the Cajun Prairie Gardens in April. Baptisia sphaerocarpa (yellow = Yellow Wild Indigo), Hymenocallis liriosme (white = Spiderlily) and Tradescantia spp. (blue = Spiderworts) predominate these floral views.


Aldo Leopold ( ; The Sand County Almanac) and Lorrie Otto ( ) come to mind immediately in any rambling about natural landscaping, also known under the monikers, wildscaping, butterfly gardening, pollinator gardening, biodiversity garden, and many more. We can readily add Lady Bird Johnson ( ) to that list as a southern representative of this famed group. The common theme that ran through their lives is a reshaping of our landscape from the post World War II lawn (a literal golf course) to a more natural theme focused on native plants, wildflowers. The inclusion of wildflowers in the landscape immediately enhanced populations of birds, butterflies, and bees as obvious visitors/residents but also began the reconstruction of the soil into a living system. The mere reduction in mechanical and chemical abuses to the landscape was enough to reignite the mechanisms of nature and permit the creation of a new community, which with a little help, may begin to look like a reassembled historical community with natives playing central roles in the landscape.

    Communities within ecosystems are evolved constructs. In defining them, we allude to the more obvious species, often called indicator species, in order to name them, e. g., juniper forest, coral reef, redwood forest, pine savanna, etc. In analyzing communities, we discover species that appear to obviously play key roles in maintaining the community structure, and we label these species as keystone species, e. g., wolf, buffalo, big bluestem, and monarch butterfly in prairies. The removal or diminishing of populations of any one of these keystone species causes dramatic changes in the subsequent community. Additions of exotic species are important here, as they commonly become keystone species as their numbers increase and the resultant change in the community is equally obvious. Humans immediately become a keystone species in any community that they invade and usually markedly impact the community within a short amount of time. We are famous for bringing exotic species with us and rapidly eliminating native species within literally moments of arrival—forever changing ‘immediately’ every community that we invade. For generations we had this knowledge and we made a ‘decision’ that this was good—environments were best when redesigned by man for his immediate benefit. This ‘manifest destiny’ has become literally the cornerstone of the definition of man. Since Aldo Leopold’s ‘Land Ethic,’ a conservation movement that embraces man’s integration into nature has grown slowly. Leopold also was the first to begin restoring prairies in Wisconsin, both on the University of Wisconsin campus and at his beloved home, the ‘Shack.’ He hoped that his example would be infectious, but it is a low grade epidemic, which has in fact made it to Louisiana under the inspired leadership of Charles Allen (prairies) and Bill Fontenot (bottomland forests) in the mid-1980s.

The community forms a matrix within which life can exist. Of course, this is most easily observed in symbiotic associations, and it can relatively easily be extended in studying predation and competition among community members. But these are the obvious connections. With growing piles of evidence from nearly every venue in ecology, the list of connections between living things within and between communities is growing almost exponentially. Unfortunately, many of these connections are recognized as community members suffer extreme population declines or extinction. Alas, as I often refer to my studies in ecology as a collective ‘post-mordem’ on life on this planet. We are learning as we are watching the biodiversity literally slip away from our planet. This is tragic and we humans must recognize what is happening. The prognosis is simple—we will disappear side by side with the other members of our community. The remedy is an immediate change in our behavior, which can begin in our front yard—our future classroom of reality. The recent development of the hand-held device as the literal classroom should be companioned with a hands-on landscaping project in our front yard—in every front yard.
Each form of landscaping with natives has a particular focus: butterflies, pollinators, wildflowers, birds, range grasses, etc. They are all excellent concepts in landscaping. Whatever form landscaping with natives takes on, it is beneficial to nature. Exotics may provide food for some butterflies and birds, but they often spread and crowd out natives in locations where no one is controlling them.
Whether the focus is trees/woodland or wildflowers/prairies or grasslands, the use of native plants provides habitat for native animals and the potential for developing a soil biota that can result in a resilient landscape that can withstand violent climate change.

Nothing in nature is as it appears: examples include:

Many popular myths surround natural landscaping and landscaping for wildlife. Let’s debunk a few.

Goldenrods (Solidago) cause sinus/respiratory allergies—they are simply blooming at the same time as the culprits—the ragweeds (Ambrosia)—a group of sunflowers without petals or sepals with windblown pollen. Goldenrods are pollinated by bees, butterflies and other insects.

Uniformly appearing lawns are neat—actually they are literally dead—uniformity is a sign of ecological death. Diversity is life. Millions of acres are manicured in developed countries—a phenomenon that shows no abatement even under the huge pile of data mounting to alarm the public. Andy and Sally Wasowski (The Landscaping Revolution and Requiem for a Lawnmower) focus on the highlights of this data and provide compelling motivation to put these lawns in perspective.

Natural landscapes are breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Actually native plants develop deep and complex root systems that literally remove water from the surface. It is the swales in lawns that breed large numbers of mosquitoes and the lights around the home that attract these mosquitoes. These swales drain slowly as lawns usually have shallow and weak root systems, with the weakest and shallowest root systems in the swales—just observe the first areas of the lawn to die back in a moderate drought—that death signals the lack of a root system.

The same weeds that are the bane of our existence are the required hosts for many insects that are not only beautiful but also pollinate our fruit and vegetable crops and serve as food for young songbirds of nearly every kind. On the other hand, those remarkable exotic ornamentals that give us so much pleasure and pride are useless in providing food for insects and of course the nestlings of our songbirds—literally these plants are pretty to look at but mostly useless otherwise.

Putting out seeds for birds is a heavily reinforced national tradition—Walmart and other big box stores sell sacks of seed at a time in this effort. The myth is that this activity will somehow preserve the populations of the songbirds in our neighborhoods. The missing link in reasoning here is that the chicks/nestlings of many songbirds don’t eat seeds but rather eat insects like caterpillars. Caterpillars are not generally sold and unfortunately are usually found only on specific native plants and almost never on exotic plants in the landscape. The notion I think is that adult birds regurgitate these seeds and feed their young is the basis for this myth. We are feeding the adult birds but we are leaving the baby birds essentially without food by removing native plants used by the caterpillars that serve as the food for the juvenile bird. Doug Tallamy (Bringing Nature Home; and many other videos) focuses on this point in every venue and talk. Try this talk for a good introduction into his efforts: .

This is essentially the same story as that of adult butterflies for which we plant millions of nectar plants (many exotic) and forget about plants that the caterpillars require for survival. The notion I think is that caterpillars are like the adult butterflies and can eat a wide variety of plants—this is just not so—some populations of specific butterflies are not only limited to a single species, but also limited to specific natural varieties within that species. Monarch butterflies are ‘lucky’ in that they are adapted as rather generalist feeders while caterpillars—they apparently eat nearly half of the many widespread member species in the genus Asclepias—the milkweeds—and milkvines (by the way once they reach a certain size, they occasionally eat other plants, but they noticeably diminished while doing so—little is known about their success in doing this). In the end, it is the kids of nature that we are forgetting in our broad stroke approach to preserving wildlife. The answers are simple: plant native plants and don’t spray them or treat them with biocides—the biocides kill the caterpillars that are food for the chicks. It is all connected. This story extends into hundreds of examples. For example, farmers used insecticides to kill rice weevils and were surprised to find out that residual insecticide killed larval and juvenile crawfish in Louisiana (tests on residual insecticide were done with adult crawfish and found to do no recognizable harm). Years were required for the residual insecticide to abate before crawfish could be grown in rice fields after insecticide treatment. Another example is BtCorn—a GMO corn that produces an endotoxin that destroys the intestine of insects. BtCorn kills the caterpillars that munch on the ears of corn, but the pollen of the corn also has Bttoxin and lands on nearby milkweeds killing juvenile Monarch butterflies (and probably many other butterfly juveniles). Again toxicity tests were conducted on adult and large caterpillars, and results indicated that minimal harm would be incurred by foraging insects on non-corn hosts. Again, it is the kids of nature that we are forgetting in our broad stroke approach to preserving wildlife.

If you’re all out for ‘honeybees,’ then you must not know that honeybees are also exotic. We are in the midst of a massive increase in the interest in pollinators, with the poster child for the movement represented by the Old World honeybee. These honeybees are a crop in the sense of a herd of cattle. Illusions of them as naturalized have some foundation, but for the most part, they are literally an agricultural entity, as are in fact our lawn grasses. I do not wish to contest the importance of the honeybees to our society and food chain, but I want to impart their actual role as an exotic animal brought here to produce ‘honey’ and pollinate exotic plants. They do pollinate some native plants, but they do so poorly as compared to native bees, of which there were thousands of species, and honeybees ignore certain native plant species. Honeybees compete with native bees for available pollen and nectar, and the native bees more often than not come in second or last. The recent trend to treat seeds with neonicotinoid insecticides is wreaking havoc with honeybees and pollinators in general. The seeds are treated with this potent insecticide—so potent that the entire plant retains enough insecticide in its parts for months to overwhelm the unsuspecting herbivore. The crashing populations of honeybees has been noted by both our government and Monsanto—each with a tremendous potential liability on their hands.

Redefining man as part of a community was key in Leopold’s ethic. The impact that we have on the landscape is so dramatic and dangerous to our well-being as a species that this impact must become an essential part of our schooling—in the last essay I suggested that it might best be thought in a classroom focusing on economics, but it usually is thought as a sidebar in biology, philosophy or creative writing.

This is really a lesson in evolution as well as ecology. Communities of living things evolved together and, as such, form a living fabric. That fabric is altered in dozens of ways by human actions that include plowing, biociding and introducing exotic plants and animals, while eliminating key native plants and animals. Our ignorance of the nature of local biological communities imperils our own economics and health. Our ignorance of the evolution of these systems imperils the existence of our species, but then that is a central thesis in evolutionary theory—fitness ultimately leads to survival and reproductive success, and our ignorance is a sign of our growing lack of fitness.

Biodiversity and conservation would in my school would make up a single course/discipline and would weave together biology, economics, politics, sociology and all of the major sciences, especially physics and chemistry. Further it would bring with it a home project involving landscaping some small element at home or in a public garden—as hands on projects are essential for the full appreciation of the role of biodiversity and the impact of the smallest effort at conservation.
Upcoming themes:

• Space and time—the multidimensional garden (Einstein/Newton)
• Phenology–blooming times of plants
• Ecological succession evidenced in plants
• Flight seasons of insects and birds.
• Mimicry and symbiosis
• Ecological niche concept = competitive exclusion principle
• Carbon, nitrogen and water cycles
• Soil as living fabric.


Posted by M. F. Vidrine.

Ecological Services–A second ecological primer.


Cajun Prairie Gardens. A view from the gazebo on June 21, 2015–a sea of Hibiscus moscheutos var. lasiocarpus.

Ecological Services

By M. F. Vidrine

     Why am I so interested in relating to you the value of nature? And why are we as a community so ignorant of the value of nature? How can we begin to solve most of our problems in this world?

These questions are obviously linked and serve as the topic of this essay. We immediately value most everything we comprehend in terms of dollars—a economic approach. The most common evaluation comes in the form of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The GDP is the monetary value of all the finished goods and services produced within a country’s borders in a specific time period (usually a year) and includes consumer spending, government spending, business spending and the total net exports.
( ). For example, the U. S. GDP is reported as nearly 18 trillion dollars (about the same as our current national debt). I don’t want to discuss the economics of this; rather, I want to relate these numbers to our ecological services. Our ecological services in the U. S. are currently estimated at 18 trillion dollars—there are a number of ways to come up with this estimate, but these methods are too tedious for this discussion, and in fact, I want to challenge you to think about the values of the ecological services and come up with a number that you think they may be worth. It should not escape your attention that the estimated GDP, national debt and value of ecological services are all the same number—18 trillion. I certainly would double their estimate of the value of ecological services, because many of nature’s resources require decades to come to fruition (note one could just as easily double the estimated GDP and the national debt). Unfortunately, a rather large percent of the U. S. GDP is spent destroying the ecological services’ potential GDP, but we will only mention this occasionally as this too would require an entire book.

What are ecological services? What value would you place on each of these services? Itemization of ecological services (my extended list—you may add more):

  • 1. Photosynthesis
    a. Plants and other photosynthetic organisms consume carbon dioxide. b. Plants and other photosynthetic organisms release oxygen.
    c. Plants and other photosynthetic organisms produce carbohydrates.
    d. Plants and other photosynthetic organisms produce water (transpiration).
    e. Plants and other photosynthetic organisms evapotranspire and produce rain and humidity.
    f. Plants sequester carbon (aka carbon sequestration).
  • 2. Fossil and other fuels
    a. Plants and animals were/are largely the ultimate source of coal, natural gas and oil.
    b. Animals and plants (and algae) produce additional substances like resins, turpentine, and diesel.
    c. Plant and animal products are common sources of fuel, e. g., wood and buffalo chips.
    d. Ethanol production (by yeasts) from corn, bagasse, switchgrass, carbon pellets, prairie grasses, algae, and other organic forms of life.
  • 3. Fermentation
    a. Yeasts form beer, whiskey, and other forms of ethanol and methanol.
    b. Yeasts form cheese.
    c. Yeasts and bacteria form yogurt.
  • 4. Pollination (one of every three bites of our food is from a pollinated plant)
    a. Bees, butterflies, moths, flies (including male mosquitoes) are primary pollinators (note neonicotinoids (similar to nicotine—a tobacco plant product) are noted for killing these pollinators).
    b. Bats, birds and other vertebrates are essential in pollination of some plants.
  • 5. Antibiotics, medicinal organisms, and therapeutic uses
    a. Fungi produce penicillin and cyclosporine and more.
    b. Bacteria produce streptomycin and more.
    c. Chrysanthemums produce pyrethroids (insecticides).
    d. Pacific Yew trees produce taxol (many trees and plants produce cancer fighting drugs).
    e. Willow trees produce aspirin (the list of medicinal plants is very long and the foundation for a multi-billion dollar industry).
    f. Many mint plants produce essential oils with powerful antibiotic and therapeutic functions.
    g. Therapy, e. g., equine therapy, canine therapy, and pet therapy in general, are growing areas of medicine.
    h. Use of animals in clinical testing of drugs.
  • 6. Ornamental value and aesthetics
    a. Trees add tremendous value to real estate appraisals.
    b. Flower gardening is another multi-billion dollar business.
    c. Soil has a tremendous value in real estate and gardening, e. g., manure and compost production and use.
    d. Using special woods, rocks, sand and water as decorative features is not a minor add-on value to home and yard decorating.
    e. Animals and plants (and fungi) are pets in one form or another, e. g., tropical fish, reptiles, large animals, and more.
    f. Coral reefs, ancient forests, living rivers and lakes, living deserts, rain forests and numerous other beautiful habitats.
    g. Products, e. g., pearls, silk, amber, and much more.
  • 7. Recreational
    a. Gardening is the number one pastime in the United States.
    b. Fishing and hunting are a close second.
    c. Visiting natural areas, including our beaches, are a third.
    d. Pets.
    e. Pastimes and professions including ornithology, herpetology, ichthyology, malacology, dendrology, etc. accounts for multi-billion dollar activities including natural tourism.
  • 8. Remediation and waste treatment
    a. Waste treatment—bacteria literally digest human and animal wastes.
    b. Compost production—bacteria and fungi breakdown plant wastes.
    c. Soil production and remediation by earthworms, bacteria, fungi, and insects.
    d. Fungi known to eliminate radioactive wastes.
    e. Water filtration by freshwater mussels and other organisms.
    f. Water purification by percolation in rhizosphere and soil strata.
    g. Cattails remove heavy metals from contaminated water.
    h. Bacteria digest oil spill pollution.
    i. Collectively, biodiverse communities remediate polluted water and soil—numerous examples exist.
    j. Gallery forests stabilize river banks and prevent sedimentation and follow-up channelization and desnagging operations and downstream flooding and damage.
  • 9. Pest control
    a. Spiders reduce pest insect populations.
    b. Parasitic wasps also reduce pest insect populations.
    c. Preying mantids, walking sticks, lacewings, ladybugs, frogs, bats, purple martins, dragonflies and numerous other predators reduce pest insect populations.
    d. Integrated pest management, although basically replaced by the use of genetically modified crops with insecticides and neonicotinoid insecticides integrated in the seed—powerful enough to make the entire plant an insecticide, employed an array of predators to control insect pest populations.
  • 10. Production of materials
    a. Nitrogen fixation by bacteria is essential for plants.
    b. Phosphate mobilization by fungi is essential for plants.
    c. Animals produce:
    1. Fur and leather
    2. Meat (including fish and fowl)
    3. Blubber and oils
    4. Silk
    d. Plants produce:
    1. Timber
    2. Fiber (cotton)
    3. Seeds, fruits and vegetables (food and sugar and gelatin)
    4. Spices: cinnamon, saphron, vanilla, pepper, file, etc.
    5. Rubber
    6. Dyes
    7. Solvents and essential oils.
  • 11. Source of genes (with the new genetically modified organisms, a new industry involving patenting genes and using them in industrial production is growing in leaps and bounds)
    a. Round-Up Ready (resistance to the insecticide glyphosate).
    b. Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis)(production of endotoxin).
    c. Agent orange Ready (2,4 D) (resistance to the insecticide).
    d. Carotene production (production of carotenes—vitamins).
  • 12. Knowledge, including evidence of evolution and ecology
    a. Fossils provide evidence of evolution—essential to understanding our planet and our history. They also provide clues to our ecology.
    b. Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) as an example of modern evolution resulting from human misuse of antibiotics.
    c. Humans are actually a system of more than 1000 organisms—each of us has a bacterial and fungal flora including hundreds of species of these symbionts—99% are beneficial as long as they stay in their select habitat and are not treated with too many chemicals that alter their basic nature. We also harbor numerous protists and several animals, including Demodex—a group of several species of follicular mites that in part prevent the accumulation of waste materials in our pores and resultant acne.
    d. As an ecologist, the study of ecosystems (those left after these years of abuse and destruction by humans, e. g., 99% of the Cajun Prairie is plowed) provides for the observation of literally thousands of interactions among organisms still evident and central in developing the science of ecology and all of its compartments, including economics, evolution, sociology, biochemistry, etc. This knowledge is opportunity—the opportunity to make trillions of dollars and create a sustainable world.
  • 13. Ecosystem functions
    a. Organisms provide structure, literally a matrix, for other life:
    1. Forests
    2. Reefs (coral and bacterial, e.g., stromatolites)
    3. Freshwater mussel beds
    4. Algal mats
    5. Grasslands
    6. Fungal hyphae form underground matrix
    7. Deep ocean vent communities.
    b. Forests and prairies purify water and evapotranspire rain and humidity.
    c. Forests reduce the impact of high wind.
    d. Forests reduce the chances of landslides and avalanches.
    e. Forests and grasslands absorb water and prevent river and lake sedimentation and flooding downstream.
    f. Forests and prairies build soils and sequester carbon and provide for wildlife.
    g. Barrier reefs protect inland areas from hurricanes and wave destruction.
    h. Ecosystems provide fish, coral, timber, and numerous other products—many are currently suffering from overharvesting or insult with broad spectrum biocides or wholesale activities like deforestation, fracking, open-ocean deep water fishing with habitat destroying netting, and many other abuses.
    i. Ecosystems provide basic shade and shelter, clean water and air, and habitat moderation for human comfort.

Which plants and animals can we spare? Since it is apparent that we are losing one species every 10 minutes by some estimates in this massive ‘sixth extinction,’ we need to make decisions as to which plants and animals that we really want to protect and keep as sojourners with us on this planetary voyage. It is easiest to begin this process at home and with a natural wildscaping effort. It is also more logical. Think global, act local.

I want to leave you with 2 points, which will be central in my discussions regarding the Cajun Prairie Gardens. The first is that at minimum our ecological services have an equal value to our U. S. GDP, and it should not be a stretch of our imagination to admit that the bulk of that GDP is actually a product of these services and not our human constructs. The second message is simple—biodiversity in our natural systems provides for obvious enhancement of the services—literally the more species that we permit to survive with us, the more value-added opportunities exist (not only in dollar terms—since the lawn (not mentioned above in my list) is not natural but often considered as an ecological service worth in the order of hundreds of billions if not a trillion dollars as a seemingly vital industry).

We begin to solve the problems by recognizing what is truly of value in this country and on this planet. It is the life that shares the planet with us. Once we recognize the value of these ecological services, we can begin to budget our time and focus our effort so as to sustain our lifestyles and improve them for others, both our species and other species. We are currently entangled in hundreds of discussions regarding morals, politics, economics, and education that are literally focused away from the source of value on our planet. This literally begins in your yard—it did in my yard.

An Introduction to Ecology

Writing a book about gardening is an effort in ecology just as the gardening is an ecological process. Thus an ecological philosophy pervades both the gardening and the writing. So as an introduction to such a book, there is a need to put forth some grounding for the readers and visitors that provides a sense of the gardener’s and writer’s philosophy. It is not uncommon for writers and gardeners to link their philosophies to one religion or another—not a plan that I use. Nor do I attribute some spiritual aspect to all of this, but rather I come to it as a naturalist and scientist seeking naturalistic explanations and focuses in my endeavors. From this stance, I want to be as optimistic as possible for our future natural world–let’s hope humans elect to be part of that world.

Naturalism (Coyne’s book: Faith vs. Fact) reflects a way of thinking where nature is the central theme upon which all other ideas are reflected and interpreted. Naturalism, as I appreciate it, is compared to a variety of religions, but it is not a religion but rather a way of knowing/thinking that uses science as a method and the facts that are accepted (fail to be rejected) by science as the core evidence used to interpret things of nature. For me, all of the major realms of activity from politics to education are literally processes of the natural world.

Major points that I consider essential for employing ecological thinking toward gardening and writing include some of the following concepts, starting with defining ecology:
• Ecology is much more than the typical definition dealing with the study of the interactions of organisms with one another and with their environment.
• Ecology involves studying biology (aka evolution), chemistry, physics, history, economics, and sociology and behavior of humans.
• Thus, we first must deal with 3 themes (this essay), ecological services (next essay) and a hands-on example (the rest of the book).

Themes: Normalcy bias, Landscape amnesia and Tragedy of the commons.

These concepts are the bases for teaching conservation and preservation as ecological responsibilities in a social setting.
To discuss these, thousands of examples are available including those that we will focus upon:
• a. loss of prairies (and biodiversity)
• b. loss of milkweeds and Monarchs

• Normalcy bias reflects that it is hard to imagine a world tomorrow that is different from today’s world. Only an understanding of history of yesterday’s world and a broad sense of natural history would permit the imagining of a future world that reflects the ecological changes occurring today.
• Landscape amnesia refers to the slow and mounting changes that go unnoticed around us. The changes occur slowly at first and then faster and faster—at first not noticed but once noticed, the changes are happening so fast that we cannot rapidly figure out what is going on. In the end, habitat and species are literally lost before we can respond or even think to respond.
• Tragedy of the commons implies that something that belongs to all of us can be disproportionately used leading to chaos and loss. In the original studies, land that was used for common grazing for all could be hogged by individuals with larger numbers of animals. In the end, everyone got more animals until the habitat or resource was literally grazed or harvested until completely eliminated. The argument that the commons are provisionally governed by a series of laws and regulations, and further, that these prevent the abuse of the commons is untenable. Little research is needed to provide a litany of examples of instances, both historical and recent, where the commons, whether it is terrestrial, marine or freshwater (see Tom’s River, The Sixth Extinction, The Real Cost of Fracking, and Nature’s Fortune—recent books that clearly present examples), government (local, federal and international) completely ignore suggestions from scientists regarding the structure of these regulations and further permit the outright breaking of any laws and regulations either by not providing regulators to monitor individuals and corporations and/or by deploying ridiculously small fines and no criminal penalties to individuals and corporations. The laws/regulations simply do not work even though millions are spent to create the laws and implement them. They tend to take years to go into effect and as such are dated and ineffectual by the time they are implemented. The regulations are continually rewritten to favor the individuals/corporations that are overharvesting and polluting. Often the regulators are poorly trained or they are provided with outdated equipment—essentially they become figureheads. The regulators are governed by administrators who usually got their marching orders from the corporation that they worked for or will work for before/after their appointment to their administrative position. If I appear to have little confidence in the current system for the regulation of the commons, you have misread my commentary—I have no confidence in the system, and further, I suspect it is largely a criminal system run by corrupt officials and usually composed of nearly environmentally illiterate members.

Taken together, these 3 general aspects as to how humans process the natural world are inimical.

• In today’s world, where economics is the central theme in nearly every conversation, the science of ecology provides a general introduction to the economics of nature.
• Trillions of dollars of services are provided each year and if viewed with other factors including National debt, GDP, etc., these ecological services equal and potentially surpass them. Neither ecological fractional reserves nor paper shorts exist in ecology—these exist only in specie/money. However, I am convinced that there are some economists that are trying to figure out how to create these financial weapons of mass destruction.

Throughout the text, numerous specific ecological principles will be addressed.

Some people are becoming aware of these concepts and making bold but simple moves. This article is a great example of action and the follow-up of teaching the relevance of the action. Here is the article:

The wet garden in the Cajun Prairie Gardens in June.

.IMG_3387Hibiscus moscheutos lasiocarpos–our Cajun Prairie Crimson-eyed rose mallow.

Posted by M. F. Vidrine.

The Cajun Prairie Gardens–an introduction


The Cajun Prairie Restoration Project sign in Eunice, LA. This site was the impetus for the creation of the Cajun Prairie Gardens. The Cajun Prairie Gardens @ 1932 Fournerat Road, Eunice, Louisiana (from Google Search and Google Maps)—an aerial view of the gardens in early spring after a winter fire is provided here (cpg aerial).

The Cajun Prairie Gardens is a microprairie that is in the process of being created from plants native to the Cajun Prairie. The Gardens are products of efforts by the Vidrine family and their friends; the Gardens consist of an acre and a half of more or less rectangular plots representing a variety of habitats in the Cajun Prairie varying from wet areas (marais and platins) and dry areas (typical prairie). The Gardens were initially installed in 1996 coincident with the purchase of the land and the building of the Vidrine home. They are modeled after the Cajun Prairie Restoration Project in Eunice, LA, which was initially installed by Charles Allen and Malcolm Vidrine and the community of Eunice during the winter of 1988-89 under the auspices of the non-profit organization, The Cajun Prairie Habitat Restoration Society ( Of course, the overall model was the actual Cajun Prairie.

The Cajun Prairie is (was) a 2.5 million acre portion of the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Prairie, which extends from Corpus Christi, TX, to the Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana. The easternmost portion in Louisiana was settled by the Cajuns, who lend their name to the prairie and the culture. The prairie has been modified by agriculture, oil production and urbanization to the extent that it is greatly imperiled and considered to be 99% destroyed/devoid of native plants. During the 1980s, Drs. Allen and Vidrine along with gathering colleagues rediscovered remnant populations of prairie plants along railroad rights-of-way—the flora and fauna of the prairie was modeled after descriptions of these remnants companioned with general knowledge of other prairies, including the western portions of the Gulf Coastal Prairie, the Great Prairies of the Midwest, and the Blackbelt Prairies of the southeastern United States. The people and the story of these discoveries and the development of the description of the prairie were summarized in Vidrine’s book entitled The Cajun Prairie: A Natural History (2010) and in Larry Allain and colleagues’ award-winning Paradise Lost brochure ( The concept of restoring prairies dates back to Aldo Leopold in the early 1930s, where he led an effort to restore prairies in Wisconsin and developed an entirely new way of thinking in the New World—a Land Ethic.

Creating the Cajun Prairie Gardens (CPG) was a rather simple and straight-forward process. With the experience gained from the construction of the Cajun Prairie Restoration Project (CPRP) in Eunice, slight modifications allowed for a more simplistic and drawn-out process. Whereas the CPRP involved herbiciding, bush-hogging and disking the soil prior to planting, the CPG was simply mowed several times, as it was a commercial lot developed in a washed-out rice field, where a church had stood with a modest graveyard (removed before sale). In CPRP, seeds were collected by organizations and school classes and distributed over the disked soil in a single event, while plugs from remnant prairie rescues containing prairie propagules were transplanted over the next couple of years. In CPG, seeds were collected from the CPRP and from remnant prairies and then interseeded directly into the mowed sod, while selective plugs both from CPRP and remnant prairies were moved in only to enhance diversity. Thus CPG was created using seeds of plants that had already proved that they were preadapted for restoration purposes. Also CPRP is a 10 acre plot that is monitored only occasionally, while the CPG are monitored daily as they are in the front yard of the family that created them.
In both cases, the prairies developed slowly. The old adage ‘First year, sleep; second year, creep; third year, leap’ applies. By the 5th year, the plots remarkably resembled the remnant prairies to a good extent, but analyses of diversity clearly showed that in situ diversity was much reduced in the restored prairies (on a square meter analysis, restored prairies usually have less than 10 species while remnant prairies often had 30 or more species). But it was obvious that the structure of the prairie was returning as were the animals from bugs to birds. Massive root systems began developing during those first years—obvious from the increase in size and health of the plants even during the lean times. Today, both prairies are thriving and grossly resemble the remnant prairies, although they lack the immense biodiversity of the remnants (ca. 200 species in the restored prairies versus more than 500 in the remnants). However, the restored prairies are gardens in that they require maintenance, including annual burning and removal of exotic species, especially trees.

The purpose of the CPG is to serve as an outdoor laboratory and classroom that can be used to demonstrate the diversity of the native landscape. Using rectangular plots permits demonstration of small scale landscaping possibilities. Wet plots display large populations of irises, hibiscus, crinums, and other plants that require moist footing. Dry plots display large populations of blazing stars, wild indigos, rosinweeds, and other plants that require drier footing. These plots undergo biweekly change in the floralscapes, such that every 2 weeks, the plots take on an entirely different appearance; however, the plant diversity provides nearly 8 months of color with sporadic explosions of color signaling the blooming of one or more dynamic species—few species bloom throughout the growing season, and in fact, most species bloom for 2 weeks and may rebloom especially if damaged either by mowing, burning, or insect damage, aka butterfly chewing as in Monarchs eating milkweeds. The plots as a whole provide a kaleidoscope of color changing not only seasonally but monthly thus signaling the changing of the seasons and the interplay of plants and the natural world. Companion these changes in plants with the appearance and disappearance of pollinators and predators and you get a vision of a dynamic natural system in miniature—a microprairie garden—where lessons of ecology and evolution play out daily.

Cajun Prairie Gardens: Making Meadows With Help From A Friend


The Cajun Prairie Gardens in 2014.

Planting seeds (literally and figuratively) begets gardens. Mark’s rendering of the Jesus’ Parable of the Sower/Soil/Seeds (Mark 4: 3-9 and other gospels) is fitting as Marc Pastorek has provided me with this opportunity or seed (literally and figuratively) to create a garden of thoughts relating to my garden of plants, butterflies, birds and more.

This blog is originally a measure for focusing my thoughts as I write a new book, tentatively titled The Cajun Prairie Gardens, a tribute to the development of the gardens created by my family and friends. These gardens represent attempts to demonstrate wildscaping with microprairies in southwestern Louisiana. The blog in essence will allow the readers to see the book literally evolve on these pages.

Whether Marc has tossed this seed on the road for birds, among the thorns to be overwhelmed, on unsuitable soils to fail to grow or mature or upon rich prairie soils suitable for this the seed, where it will thrive and reproduce, will be judged herewith.

Malcolm Vidrine