Posted by: chrismaser | January 1, 2012


Although a landscape is usually perceived as a finished product in the sense of a scenic vista, or an aspect of the land characteristic of a particular region, in reality, every landscape is a mural of Nature and, as such, is forever incomplete. When I think of a landscape, I think of a dynamic kaleidoscope of all the elements and all the scales of relationships and events focused for an instant, this instant, in the center of the Universe.

A petrified palm log 300 miles south of Alexandria into the western desert of Egypt.

I say “the center of the Universe,” because I am here participating in Creation as an active observer. I therefore stand at the exact center of the Universe, because as an individual human being, I am the center of all interdependencies; all interdependencies radiate from me and come back to me—just as they have over the millennia with the palm tree that lived, died, and became this log in the western desert of Egypt, which I saw over 45 years ago. As I am the center of the Universe, so are you; so is everything in Creation. The center of the Universe is therefore everywhere and nowhere.

In considering a landscape, think first of the dynamic geological processes, which evoke every conceivable scale of time, space, and relationship that formed the land and the resultant macroclimate (the prevailing climate of the times, as it effects the continent). In turn, the geological processes and the climate act together on the parent materials (the original rock from which a particular soil is derived in a particular location). The result is the topography of the area. These are the long-term biophysical constraints, which control and define a landscape in space through the long reaches of time.

A basalt rim in northwestern Nevada.

An old river channel at Kurkur Oasis in the desert of Egypt west of Aswan.

Geological processes constantly alter the surface of the Earth. One process is the collision of the oceanic plates with the continental plates as the former moves under the latter, thrusting the Earth’s crust upward into folds and buckles, which form ranges of mountains. These mountains have a profound impact on the overall climate of the area. They determine the amount and pattern of precipitation that falls in a given time, and they dictate the accompanying temperature. They determine when, where, and in what way the precipitation falls, be it rain or snow.

Mt. Shasta in northwestern California.

The type of parent material or rock of which the mountains are composed determines not only the way they will erode but also the type of soil that will be formed as a result of being exposed to a particular climatic regime. The effect of climate over time is known as weathering. The initial formation of the mountains, their sizes, shapes, and the types of parent materials of which they are composed determines part of the pattern of weathering and erosion. The prevailing climate also determines part of the pattern of weathering and erosion. Taken together, climate and weathering form the resulting topography or the physical features of the particular place or region at any given point in time.

Mt. Jefferson in the central Oregon Cascade Mountains.

In addition to and within the control of the long-term biophysical constraints, there are such dynamics as disturbance regimes, hydrological cycles, and microclimate. These are the short-term, biophysical constraints, which control and refine the definition of a given landscape in space through the short reaches of time.

A forest stream in the Nepalese Tarai prior to the onset of the summer monsoon.

Regimes of catastrophic disturbance, such as fire, flood, landslide, avalanche, or tornado, to which our North American ecosystems are continually subjected, are determined by and influenced by such things as macroclimate in conjunction with topography, the hydrological cycles, and the microclimate of a given area. A hydrological cycle has four apparently discrete parts: (1) the way water falls as rain and/or snow, (2) the way it sinks into the soil and is either stored or flows below ground, (3) the way it runs over the surface of the soil in streams and rivers on their way to the sea, and (4) the way it evaporates into the atmosphere to be cycled again as rain and/or snow. Microclimate, as used here, is the climate of an immediate area as determined by the topography and the vegetation, which exerts a local influence over the macroclimate, the prevailing climate of the times.

Between the nonliving, long- and short-term biophysical constraints of a landscape and the living components of the landscape (its plants and animals) lies the soil. The soil is a combination of both nonliving and living components of the landscape. It is an exchange membrane, much like the placenta through which a mother nourishes her child. The soil, which is derived from the parent materials laid down by the geological processes, is built up and enriched by the plants that live and die in it. It is also enriched by the animals that feed on the plants, void their bodily wastes, and eventually die, decay, and return to the soil as organic matter.

Lost Creek in northwestern Nevada.

And then there are the individual living organisms, which collectively form the species, which in turn form the collective communities that spread over the land. These organisms, through the exchange medium of the soil, are influenced by the short-term biophysical constraints even as they themselves influence those same constraints through their life cycle. The dynamic interactions of communities and soil are controlled and influenced by the long-term biophysical constraints that collectively form the landscape. And it is the landscape that we humans arbitrarily delineate into ecosystems as we try to understand the dynamic interactions between nonliving and living components of our world.

A chittal (spotted deer) in the forest of Gokarna in the Katmandu Valley.

To gain a sense of the dynamic nature of a landscape through time, we’ll take a peek at the changes wrought to the central portion of the United States—that which today is the Great Plains. Our view begins as the last glacial stage, the Wisconsin, named after the state, reached its maximum development between 70,000 and 10,000 years ago, and then receded into history.

While the glacier was at its maximum, temperatures lowered on the North American continent, and arctic plants grew as far south as what are now Virginia, Oklahoma, and Texas. Coniferous (cone-bearing) trees like pine and spruce grew in what is now the Great Plains, along with some deciduous (leaf-shedding) trees.

A recent forest fire at 11,500 feet up in the Nepalese Himalayas. The small, square building at the edge of the flat area is a Buddhist temple, and the whitish area is the tent of my research field camp in 1967.

As the last glacier receded and the climate warmed, the deciduous forest began to take over from the coniferous forest. The center of the continent continued to warm and dry, and fire began to play an increasingly important role in shaping the vegetation. Although the coniferous forest became confined to the cooler climates of the Rocky Mountains and westward, the grassland in the center of the continent expanded and withdrew as temperatures waxed and waned. During times of warmer temperatures the deciduous forest retreated eastward and grassland filled the area—and vice versa. Because the climate continued to warm and dry, wind-driven grass fires increased and helped the grassland eventually take over from the trees and shrubs to form the Great Plains of today.

So, although climate was a factor in the evolution of the grasslands that greeted the early European invaders in the center of the North American continent, so too were the vastness and the flatness of the Great Plains and the annual fire-carrying dieback of the grasses.

A fire-maintained shrub/grass landscape in northwestern Nevada.

When thinking about landscapes in the Pacific Northwest, I am often reminded of the fires, both large and small, that over the millennia shaped the great forests I knew as a youth. And later in life, as I studied the interactive connections between animals and forests, I found the recurring cycles of the birth, growth, and death of individuals, the waxing and waning of habitats and of plant and animal communities, and the evolution of species that eventually returned again to the distant unknown.

What seems clear to me now is that the Universal cycles are not perfect circles, as they so often are depicted. They are rather a coming together in time and space at a point where one “end” of a cycle approximates—but only approximates—its “beginning” in a particular place. Between its beginning and its ending, a cycle can have any configuration of cosmic happenstance.

Further, Nature’s cycles are most “real” and discernible to me as they pertain to and influence living organisms, those beings with whom I share the gift of life. Beyond that, in the non-biological reaches of the cosmos, cycles become more and more abstract as they extend either backward or forward into the continuum of time. Thus while cycles give dimension, context, and texture to the landscape, they are more real to me in the living here and now than they are when they penetrate into the formation of the short- and long-term biophysical constraining factors as they affect any given place on Earth.

In viewing a landscape, I am as aware as I possibly can be of all of the factors that have come together to create a particular place, as I perceive it, not just the events but also the cycles in which the events are embedded. In addition, I am mindful of the fact that everything in the Universe is subjected to the many dimensions of ever-changing scales, each of which is a facet of the Eternal Mystery that so deeply stirs my soul.

The weathered remains of a bristle-cone pine in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California.


Related Posts:

• River Of My Youth

• Clouds, A Story Of Infinite Creation

• I Love The Seasons

• The Fire Of Life

• Today I Go Hungry

• For An Instant

• Keyboard Of The Winds

• My Lesson In Humility

• What A Stream Taught Me

• Musical Corridors

• The Law Of Cosmic Unification

• Principle 1: Everything is a relationship

• Principle 12: All systems are cyclical, but none are perfect circles.

• Principle 14: Dynamic disequilibrium rules all systems.

• Soil–The Great Placenta

• Air–The Breath Of Life

• Water–A Captive Of Gravity

Text and Photos © by Chris Maser 2012. Photo of the bristle-cone pine stump is © by and courtesy of Sue Johnston. All rights reserved.

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If you want to contact me, you can visit my website. If you wish, you can also read an article about what is important to me and/or you can listen to me give a presentation.

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