Classical Greeks and Romans once had a wonder plant called silphium, so revered that it appeared on coinage.
In 2017, Zaria Gorvett listed some of its uses for the BBC: “Its crunchable stalks were roasted, sautéed or boiled and eaten as a vegetable. Its roots were eaten fresh, dipped in vinegar. It was an excellent preservative for lentils and when it was fed to sheep, their flesh became delectably tender.
“Perfume was coaxed from its delicate blooms, while its sap was dried and grated liberally over dishes from brains to braised flamingo….
“Then there were the medical applications. Silphium was a veritable wonder herb, a panacea for all manners of ailments.”
Used as both an aphrodisiac and a contraceptive, “(silphium’s) heart-shaped seeds,” Gorvett writes, “are thought to be the reason we associate the symbol with romance.”
But, silphium was temperamental. It grew wild, but resisted cultivation. Its vegetation zone was limited to the Mediterranean coast of what is now Libya. And the demand for silphium was so high that short-term profiteers (the MBA bean-counters of their day, no doubt, trying to maximize daily gains) took all the silphium to market one year, leaving no seeds to perpetuate the species.
As with passenger pigeons, dodos (and almost bison), even plants can be harvested out of existence. Today we would say such practices lack sustainability.
My first vacation destinations were the Black Hills and Bighorns. Most of my vacations since have followed that north-by-northwest trajectory. With the Black Hills closer and with more centrally-located hiking trails, I have often skipped the trip over to Wyoming.
Still, I have watched the boom and bust of Wyoming open pit coal mining over the past 45 years – done in by cheap natural gas, not sensible emission restrictions that were never enacted.
I have followed three different trails a mile and a half to the ascent base for Little Devils Tower (The Place of the Turtles, on my personal map). Foot traffic leads to bare soil and then erosion and the trail becomes treacherous. (Unsustainable.) Just off that trail is the place currently leading the sweepstakes as the site to scatter my ashes. My main regret is the I won’t be able to do it myself.
I like the Black Hills. I remember Bear Butte before a wildfire wiped out its trees (and hiking shade). My favorite spot there was a gap between two rocky outcrops with an omphalos-shaped stone covered in familiar, welcoming lichens. That part of the trail is now off-limits to non-Indians since there can be no guarantee that our traipsing would not coincide with native ceremonials.
I check on the Black Hills daily – the KOTA Territory TV news site, the Rapid City Journal. Earlier this month, there was much concern over logging in the Black Hills National Forest.
Nathan Thompson of The Journal wrote on April 7, “Sustainability of one of the nation’s most vibrant forests through proper timber harvesting and management, while balancing the ecological needs of the Black Hills was the focus of a meeting Wednesday morning with a group of scientists and residents.”
This was a follow-up meeting to the March 23 release of a Forest Service report that “recommended a 50 to 60 percent reduction in timber production over the next several decades.”
That preliminary report caused one sawmill to shut down, with a loss of 120 jobs though the Forest Service is still gathering information and it might be three to four years before a final report is issued.
KOTA found a local timber industry official to blame the forest troubles on the Forest Service for NOT allowing more harvesting. “A major concern in this process is that the forest infrastructure has been damaged significantly by the lack of Forest Service to provide timber sales over the last several years,” according to Bill Coburn, Chairman of the Lawrence County Timber Industry, who blamed this inaction for the closing of the sawmill.
But, Thompson wrote, the scientists behind the report contend that maintaining current ponderosa pine cutting numbers in the Black Hills “is not sustainable under any scenario they studied.”
Thus, in a microcosm, we see the dilemma facing all Earthlings: immediate profitability versus long-term viability. That some mandated profit margin are absurd toward obscene only exacerbates the problem.
Left to our own devices, we deplete fisheries, over-graze cropland into deserts, denude forests, leave slag heaps or pits where once were mountains of ores and plow away topsoil or drain what is left of its nutrients.
Common sense tells us that Earth’s mineral resources are finite, and history has shown that even renewable resources (silphium, anyone?) can be mismanaged out of existence.
Just as a forest or a plant needs to be managed for sustainability, for its continued perpetuation, so, too, does the current Earthwide civilization.
Last week Scientific American announced a change in nomenclature for the climate challenge facing our planet. Joining other news groups, it has decided to retire the term “climate change” in favor of the more accurate “climate emergency.”
In making its announcement the scientific journal reported, “The planet is heating up way too fast. It’s time for journalism to recognize that the climate emergency is here.
“This is a statement of science, not politics. Thousands of scientists—including James Hansen, the NASA scientist who put the problem on the public agenda in 1988,…have said humanity faces a ‘climate emergency.’
“Why ‘emergency?’ Because words matter. To preserve a livable planet, humanity must take action immediately. Failure to slash the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will make the extraordinary heat, storms, wildfires and ice melt of 2020 routine and could ‘render a significant portion of the Earth uninhabitable,’ warned the January Scientific American article.”
“Uninhabitable” seems a bit incompatible with “sustainable.” This Earth Day – Thursday – stop to consider whether short-term, short-sighted profits are worth the chaotic desolation with which we threaten our heirs. Then, choose sustainable courses of action for more a habitable future.
(Gary Edmondson is chair of the Stephens County Democratic Party. Longer, unexpurgated versions of his columns can be found at scdpok.us or facebook.com/SCDPOK/.)