12. Deep Roots
The 2015 United Nations World Climate Change Conference, taking place in Paris right now, is the 21st such annual meeting since the original one occurred in 1992. In that time, scientists estimate that the world has gotten warmer by 0.2°C, ten percent of the 2°C increase in global temperatures that we need to stay under in order to avoid devastating consequences. Even more frightening, it has been predicted that we will reach this benchmark by the end of this century. To avoid it, we would need to leave every unburned fossil fuel in the ground. Temperature fluctuation is natural; during the last ice age the earth was nearly 7°C cooler than it is now. What is unnatural, damaging, and disturbing, is the rate at which humans have managed to increase the global temperature: according to scientists at NASA, the earth is around 0.8°C than it was in 1880, the first year that reliable global measurements were taken. While the earth has had temperature changes in the past, they have all occurred on a geologic time scale; none have been nearly this rapid.
This map shows the environmental history of Livingston County, NY, with a particular emphasis on green spaces. It starts by looking at the diverse soils of New York State (and beyond), that have been deposited by advancing and receding glaciers and flowing rivers over the past few hundred thousand years. Soil is fundamentally important to the green space present in any area, because it determines in large part the subterranean microbiome that governs what plants will grow above ground. The varied and active geologic history of New York has led to a diverse soil composition, and historically, a correspondingly rich variety of vegetation above ground. Livingston is a testament to the changes that humans can render to the earth. The county was once part of the most productive agricultural area in the country, producing wheat that fed the nation. It has been actively farmed since well before Europeans began to move into the area in the early 19th century.
A simple look over the valley from Geneseo reveals an agricultural monoculture that belies the diversity of soil types and plant species that the county used to be comprised of. Indeed, farmers need to supplement the soil in their fields with massive amounts of fertilizer in order to compensate for its relatively low fertility for many crops. However, the narrative of unidirectional climate and environmental damage may not be wholly appropriate, especially when looking at the green spaces in Livingston County. The agricultural revolution brought on by genetically modified organisms (GMOs) helped farmers to grow more food over a smaller area, leaving increasing amounts of land available for conservation. Large agribusinesses, while incredibly damaging to the environment, have a (not always negative) ecological impact that extends far beyond the fields where crops are grown. In the last 55 years, the county created eight of its 18 major green spaces. The Spencer J. Roemer Arboretum, part of the State University of New York at Geneseo, is an excellent microcosm of the positive environmental changes that are taking place in Livingston County and around the world.
The Arboretum opened in 1990. It had originally been acquired by the college in the 1960s, with an eye towards developing the site as graduate student housing. However, due to a generous donation from Dr. Spencer J. Roemer, the 20 acre pasture was preserved as a green space. The land had been part of the Wadsworth Estate beginning in 1790, and was used as pasture land for Wadsworth cattle and horses. The large black walnut and oak trees that dominate the arboretum today are remnants from the time that they served as shade trees for farm animals. Aerial photographs from 1959 show an area that would be almost unrecognizable today. A few dozen large trees dominate the otherwise grassy site, the only harbingers of the forest to come. Only 56 years later (the blink of an eye in ecological time), the site has become a second growth forest, with large trees and relatively thick underbrush. It is actively managed to support biodiversity, and research is being conducted to understand the organisms that live both above and below its surface.
In many ways, the story of the Arboretum is the story of conservation and restoration in Livingston County. Rich in natural resources, the county has been dominated by agriculture for the past 200 years. Efforts to preserve the natural beauty and resources of the county have persisted alongside agriculture, beginning with the foundation of Letchworth State Park in 1776, and continuing into the present day with efforts from private, local, and state organizations. A recent survey found that up to two thirds of ecological restoration projects in the United States are successful. This should create a lot of hope for a county that is already doing many things right.