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The firewood pile is bustling. Its intricate cavities provide nesting hollows for deer mice, a pantry for red squirrels, a bunker for chipmunks, an outpost for ermine, a skin-peeler for garter snakes, a banquet for bark beetles and carpenter ants.

Every winter the pile gradually disappears and is reconstructed in spring. This cycle has been replicated on the same spot for 40 years — that is, for generations of its occupants and visitors. To the animals it's a natural phenomenon, as likely as December snowfall or April anemones. As the steward of that woodpile, I am also an agent of nature, and as a sentient being, a kind of local god who manipulates habitat.

One summer afternoon, I noticed our dog Oscar staring at the ground near the pile, rigidly attentive. I ambled over to discover a large leopard frog gripped in the jaws of a smallish garter snake. The reptile had attacked the amphibian's right hind leg, and both seemed spellbound. There was blood around the clamped jaws of the snake, but it looked like a stalemate. That frog was too big to be swallowed by that undersized garter.

I'm a hands-off deity, and normally don't intervene between predator and prey, but the snake's ambition was not going to feed it, and I felt for the wounded frog. I gently tugged at the garter until it finally let go and struck at me — out of anger, fear, or instinct I don't know — but if forced to assign emotional content to its slick half-coil and strike, I'd say it was peeved. The frog hopped away into the garden. Oscar repeatedly lunged at the snake, but kept his distance as mammals usually do. The garter sluiced away and vanished into the leaf litter of the forest floor.

That direct intercession was akin to stacking/unstacking firewood, but I'm connected to these creatures more fundamentally — dependent for life and health on the quality of the same air, water, soil and forest. But since I'm smarter than they are (as we reckon it), have the capacity to easily disrupt their lives and also exert a huge carbon footprint, I must continually resist the delusion that I transcend their world. Like all humans, I'm easily lured into the heretical dogma that I am somehow outside of ecology, that the cosmos has two major facets: humanity and nature, and that as Rose (Katharine Hepburn) archly says to Charlie (Humphery Bogart) in "The African Queen," "Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put on earth to rise above."

And as we rise — 8 billion of us now and headed for a peak of 9 billion-plus, say the demographers — we nurture a sense of ownership. After all, the woodpile is mine, right? I made it, didn't I? We're all capitalists when it comes to firewood, although I didn't actually create that wealth. The trees grew without my aid; I just vigorously rearranged them via the power of fossil fuels — chainsaw gas, bar oil, truck fuel. Our muscle makes it difficult for many humans to grasp this century-old thought from Chief Seattle: "The earth does not belong to us. We belong to the earth."

We are skeptical of that, proudly pointing to sprawling cities that influence their own weather; dams as imposing as cliffs that conjure lakes in deserts; vast electrical and communications grids; mines mimicking canyons and mesas; highways, bridges, and rails spanning continents; billions of acres of once-wild land tamed and cultivated; deadly diseases (that is, microbes) that have been wiped out, and so on, plus those 8 billion people with multitudes more on the way, and we fervently believe we're a special case.

But consider that from a few hundred miles up, except for our artificial light at night, nearly 100% of all those human artifacts are invisible. From space, in daytime, we're as unapparent as bacteria, who outnumber us by orders of magnitude. Those satellite panoramas offer at least aesthetic support for a theory proposed by chemist James Lovelock and microbiologist Lynn Margulis over four decades ago. The shorthand term for the idea is Gaia, referring to the Greek goddess of the Earth. The hypothesis allows that the biosphere is actually a single gargantuan organism that has survived for over 3.5 billion years.

Gaia/biosphere appears to self-organize, to adjust the chemistry of the air, the surface temperature of the land and oceans, and other parameters to maintain a zone suitable for the origin and proliferation of life. The climate of our globe has been congenial for complex organisms ever since they first appeared. Despite fluctuations in the sun's energy output, and other cosmic events such as large asteroid and comet impacts, Gaia has sustained a basic equilibrium, much as a human body maintains body temperature in the face of changing external conditions of hot and cold, wet and dry, etc. As physicist and ecologist Fritjof Capra noted, our planet "is a living system; it functions not just like an organism, but actually seems to be an organism — Gaia, a living planetary being."

Similarly, despite vagaries of weather, the temperament of my chain saw or the state of my health, I sustain the annual cycle of the woodpile habitat. (One spring, after spinal surgery, I paid a couple of stackers to do it for me.) The pile is a microcosm of the biosphere that local animals and their descendants have come to rely upon, or at least take advantage of.

The world's climate is being significantly disrupted with a bias toward potentially catastrophic (for us) heating. Seasons we've become accustomed to are shifting. My personal records of subzero days, frost-free days, ice on/ice off a local lake, and other data over the past 40 years indicate that northeastern Minnesota has definitely, significantly warmed.

Historian David Christian, a pioneer in the field of "big history," a large-scale view of our collective saga from the Big Bang to the present and into the future, has written, "evidence is accumulating that we are using more resources than the biosphere can provide, with the risk of serious breakdown." He notes that humanity has endured such resource-driven collapses before, on a local level, but today the result can be global. He notes, "Such conclusions suggest the folly of treating human history as separate from the history of the Earth." As ecologist Stan Rowe said, the planet is not merely "resource," but "source."

Gaia has been resilient, but our niche in the web of life is not guaranteed. Our survival, and certainly our prosperity and the maintenance of large populations, will be jeopardized if we disturb Gaia's equilibrium too much — if we make the biosphere ill. We can sicken Gaia to the point where humans are no longer viable and/or tolerated. We can't kill her, but she can kill us. Despite our hubris, there is no evidence that the biosphere favors us over other life forms. In the wake of the heat that exterminates us, other organisms will thrive.

So I build, remove and rebuild the woodpile that seems to benefit so many of our neighbors, maintaining a seasonal equilibrium that transcends their lifespans and thus provides an illusion of permanence. But I will disappear, and the woodpile ecosystem will "fail." Local life will go on, but not in the same way.

That's why it's fatuous and misleading to talk about "saving the planet." We can neither destroy nor save the earth, any more than mice and garter snakes can stack firewood. However, we can alter the biosphere to the extent it becomes uncongenial to our health and survival, so the primary reason to be deeply concerned about "the environment" is to save ourselves. Gaia will be content to move on if necessary.

Peter M. Leschak, of Side Lake, Minn., is the author of "Ghosts of the Fireground" and other books.