08/12/2014 10:29 pm ET Updated Oct 12, 2014

Simple Complexity

A small group composed of CEOs, conservationists, funders and advisors recently unplugged from technology and headed into the wilderness. A string of 20 mules and a dozen horses packed us and our gear deep into the Bob Marshall Wilderness in western Montana, dropping our rafts and provisions for a five-day float down the South Fork of Flathead River. For this set of lightly-seasoned buckaroos, the 30-mile ride in offered scorching weather, horse-flies and sore rears - but it also offered a glimpse of how a watershed works if left to its own device.

The first thing we noticed is how much of the forest had been burned; half of all we saw in any direction was blackened. Mile after mile, we passed snags eerily standing watch over the silent re-growth of vegetation following the burn. The wildflowers abounded, drawing in pollinators to get things going. The seeds which had dropped from the pine cones in native response to the heat of the fires were growing into the forest of tomorrow. Each burn mark moved along its own trajectory and timeline to regain life depending on its aspect to the sun, the rain or drought it received immediately after the fire, along with the temperature of the burn itself. The simple processes of nature conspired against anything uniform, and the landscape rebelled against any straight lines.

In its simple way, the river, too, had a knack for complexity. For someone who spends his life restoring rivers, looking at its striking meanders, its full measure of natural flows unaltered by irrigation pipes and the cataract of log jams was a real treat. At the same time, I considered the billions of dollars we spend as a country each year to recreate these characteristics in damaged rivers across the U.S. I chuckled at how reliably short-sighted humans are.

Repeatedly through our history, we traded in the complexity of nature for the predictability of civilization in the name of progress. We removed streamside vegetation to plants more crops. Then we straightened the natural curves of rivers and removed naturally-occurring log jams and woody debris to speed up shipping. Nature was beaten back and held at bay for reasons of perceived safety. Its bounty was argued to be for our taking. In many ways, the decisions we made were era-appropriate, and perhaps the best we could manage at that time. What we didn't realize then, is that all of those actions would have consequences someday. We simplified the land to serve our purposes, and in so doing, we disrupted virtually all of the natural processes developed over eons.

Left to their own devices, rivers meander and provide habitat for spawning and rearing fish. Streamside trees provide shade to the river, their roots stabilize banks to halt runoff. And when they finally die or burn, those same trees fall into the river to create slow water habitat for fish as well as for the insects that act as food source to multiple aquatic species. The simplified landscapes we see almost everywhere we look in our daily lives offer none of these benefits and hold almost no resilience against man-made or even natural stresses. Though they do not burn, they are truly hollow.

The logistics of travelling in a self-contained way through that rugged country took real effort, I won't lie. But by undertaking that journey with intentionality, it rejuvenated me. It allowed the group a trip back in time to see how things worked before we simplified its complexity. Knowing that we have a handful of natural ecosystems such as these to observe and learn from gives me some hope that we can improve our own course. With the knowledge that we have now, we can - and must - better make sense of how to mimic the complexity of nature for the sustained benefit of humans and our world.