Regardless of pronunciation preferences, a niche is your place in an ecosystem. Every organism has its niche, its role, its job, its purpose in the web of life, whether they like it or not.
Plants provide food and shade and habitats for small animals that are then eaten by larger animals. Fungus, bacteria, and insects recycle dead materials and return them to the ecosystem in usable pieces. Everything works together in this giant symphony, and your niche is your place in that symphony, whether it's principal violin, or the guy who smashes cymbals together just once during the concert. It's all important.
We humans have lost our grip on our niche. As it was, we were once scavengers, moving across vast distances to find food and shelter. When we decided to stay put and domesticate crops and cattle, we changed the game completely and lost our place among the natural world.
We now think of our niche, our place, in terms of human society, not the natural world. But I wish we thought about both.
Our human niche is what we contribute to the world through our relationships, our work, and our interests. We are mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, friends, and enemies. We are doctors, teachers, lab technicians, social workers, tech support staff, and graduate advisors. We are home brewers, painters, mountain climbers, and civil war reenacters. Our niche, then, is the sum of our connections and efforts. Unfortunately, when you verbalize your niche, it sounds like your bio on a dating website.
What is our natural niche? We certainly consume everything we can, from minerals in the earth to every edible plant an animal we can find. But we go through life assuming we'll never be lower on the food chain. I don't know anyone who thinks it'd be quite alright to be eaten by a bear.
But even when we die of "normal" causes, we go to great lengths to keep ourselves separate from nature. A crucial step in the natural order is returning your atoms to the ecosystem when you die. Other animals can put your carbon to good use. But we say, "No!" like a jealous lover. "If I can't have it, no one will!" I have heard there is a movement of natural cemeteries that inter people with minimal, um, preservatives, but this is certainly not the norm.
So our biological niche is still up in the air--after all, we modern humans are a relatively recent evolutionary invention. In a perfect world, our new niche would be the protectors of the planet, using our departure from nature to look at the world holistically and watch over it. But like a new parent, we don't really know what we're doing, and we have to sort out our priorities. Eh, we'll figure it out. Or our species will perish. Either way.
So, in my last post of 2010, I welcome you to think about your niche while you write your new year's resolutions.