Land Jenga

This simple game will be known to many. The idea is that you construct a small tower out of 54 small wooden blocks, three per layer, with each successive layer at right angles to the one below it to afford stability. Any number of players may participate and the game is to remove, using one hand only, a block at a time. Each player gets to remove one block per turn and the player that brings down the tower loses. Blocks can be removed from any level of the tower and a really steady hand is an advantage.

The game comes in a rather attractive multi-colored box with some simple instructions in a number of languages. On the bottom of the box there is some sort of recommendation or caution. For one reason or another it does not appear in English so perhaps it only applies to German, Dutch and Spanish speakers. There are also some statements in some languages that confirm that the toy meets certain safety standards. The multi-lingual approach confirms the universality of the game.

For those who have played Jenga they know that the first few blocks can be removed fairly readily. A deft hand is required but they slide out easily. Obviously, as the game proceeds it gets progressively more difficult to identify the blocks that can safely be removed. It is also clear that after a certain point, a player cannot be certain that having begun to remove a block the edifice will continue to stand after its removal. Experienced players will know the feeling as the tower starts to sway but somehow manages to stay upright although clearly far from stable. It may be that a few more blocks can get removed, with care, before the whole thing comes tumbling down. However, there always comes a point where the tower collapses.

According to a 2002 inventory of major land uses some 26% of the U.S is given over to grassland and pasture, 20% to cropland and about 13% to some form of urban and suburban development. This means that about 60% of the land area is subject to some sort of active human management. To a lesser extent this may also apply to the 29% given over to forest uses. This means that a very large proportion of the land in the U.S. is subject to some sort of periodic human intervention with only a relatively small area that could be considered as wild and undisturbed habitat. Why is this of interest?

Well, in an urban or suburban context virtually all the natural undisturbed habitat has been compromised. Of course there are parks and lawns and other open spaces but they are hardly wild. This means that the original inhabitants, be they plant, insect, bird or animal, have decamped to another location; or more likely become functionally extinct. How many of us have homes that sport a verdant sward of lawn kept in a bug-free condition by the copious application of pesticides, herbicides and who knows what else. Result – a largely sterile parcel of land from which only the hardiest species of flora and fauna can eke out an existence. Where are the butterflies, the insects, the amphibians?

The land under the plough is not much different. The influence of the industrialization of agriculture demands the use of chemicals to control pests and weeds. Indeed, the creation of large areas given over to a single crop reduces the variety of life that can subsist in its midst.

This is no small matter and it is all about biodiversity. However one looks at it, species are being eradicated at an alarming rate. Nature is a truly remarkable thing; there is something occupying every conceivable crevice on the planet. Take plants, for example. Most require a particular type of habitat and as that habitat changes as a result of the development pressure exerted by us (and of course, climate change – also down to us in some measure) so particular types of plant, bush or tree are no longer viable in a particular location. Invasive species move in that may, for example, leaf out earlier thus precluding the natives from getting established at the start of the growing season. This means not only the loss of the native plant life but also the food source that was relied upon by insects, birds and other animals up the food chain. In fact, it is not so much a matter of a chain but rather that of a web. Everything is interconnected. As Professor James Lovelock, Edward O. Wilson and others have pointed out the planet is a finely balanced self-regulating organism and we interfere with her natural processes at our peril.

As plant variety changes so does the rest of the web upon which it was reliant. In few cases can native wildlife adapt in the short term to a new diet provided by non-native plants. So, being unable to eat the leaves of the new plant species the insect population becomes less diversified, the birds that rely upon the insects to feed themselves and rear their young also diminish in number and variety. And so it goes.

The diversified natural world, upon which we are totally and utterly reliant, is having its building blocks removed. How long before we figure this out and, as Jenga players know, we pass the point at which the tower loses its innate stability.

Chris Wood