Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World
by Emma Marris (Bloomsbury, 2011)
Nature is changing. Change is in fact its original condition. Evolution is good. Species are good and more are better. Science is certain on this. Everything and everywhere today is different from the past. Even places like coastal rain forest in the Pacific Northwest are in fact the result of climate change and will presumably change into something else at some point in the future. Our most precious preserves, it turns out, have a long and involved history of human modification, beginning thousands of years ago and reaching up to the conservation era. In many if not most cases, recovering even a semblance of the past is impractical if not impossible. Perhaps more importantly, if the past is an endless succession of changing states, why chose one to be a reference condition—why privilege one ephemeral state over another? If human influence long predates the modern age, why go back to another human landscape? Our fascination with wilderness is a cultural obsession—a fantasy, actually, uniquely modern and American in its origin. One of its unfortunate consequences is that it has led conservationists to espouse the removal of
indigenous peoples from areas like California’s Yosemite Valley in order to create wilderness parks and to waste vast amounts of money and time trying to do the impossible—turn the clock back. There is no
balance of nature, no stable state for a conservationist to hang his or her hat on.
Yosemite is an appropriate reference here because the aspect of the broad business of conservation Emma Marris deals with in Rambunctious Garden is a version of what used to be referred to as “preservation” or, more recently, as restoration or (more recently still) ecocentric restoration. This, however, leaves us without a generic term that includes all management protocols that are designed to conserve ecosystems or attributes of ecosystems with a deliberate disregard for the material interests of humans.
The term “conservation” includes a wide range of activities and philosophies, from the most heartlessly analytical resource economics to taking care of rare orchids and wild places—things that may be of no material benefit to people. As I use the term here, I am especially concerned with the “rare orchids and wild places” end of the conservation spectrum, what used to be called preservation and now includes ecological restoration and perhaps rewilding and the creation of novel ecosystems. This use of the term seems most relevant to Marris’s concerns.
Rambunctious Garden is not a book that reviews either the achievments of conservation (in this sense) or its present situation, but rather a book that delights in highlighting the bad boys and bad girls who dare to think
outside the box of conventional conservation. The boxes Marris allows these miscreants to escape from are in part a fiction, but they are journalistic fictions with a purpose. Every self-styled revolutionary needs a King George. But, unlike a monarchy, conservation agencies today are not monolithic in their actions, and generally surround themselves with bland language about ecosystem health, vitality, resilience and biodiversity—which taken in total means something like, “plants and animals are good”. They avoid tying themselves to any particular reference period, because scientists and critics like Marris have poked at the very idea of such an objective for decades. Still, the label “native” holds unquestionable if not absolute power in conservation. So Marris has a point that is worth considering, even if it doesn’t dominate land management policy in quite the way she supposes.
Just for the record, conservation agencies in the Midwest and elsewhere routinely undertake land management efforts under the rubric of “restoration”. And, yes, the pre-European-contact ecosystem is typically the approximate, though rarely clearly stated, goal of such projects—usually with a lot of ad hoc adjustments and modifications. This is not impossible or foolish. It is hard work. The results are incomplete but satisfying. We are still learning how to do it better. We move incrementally toward a goal that we understand better each year, knowing that we will never reach it. If you appreciate the structure, function, and composition of a particular historical ecosystem, then attempting to restore it is worth the effort. If you think an ecosystem full of common weeds is just as good, then restoration is a waste of time.
Like many critics of restoration, Marris confounds a “pristine” or idyllic past with an important or interesting past, and thereby makes a historic reference seem naive. In fact, I have never heard a manager call restoration “slavish” or the goal of a project a “pristine” ecosystem, probably because reality forces managers to compromise and adjust strategies and goals on an almost daily basis, but also because few if any of them entertain the long-since discredited idea of an ecologically privileged, “pristine” or “original” ecosystem. Marris seems to echo 1491, Charles Mann’s account of the pre-Columbian ecology of the New World in moving from the realization that the pre-contact or pre-modern landscape was a thoroughly lived-in place to the notion that it is patently irrelevant as a source of models and themes for conservation. The past need not be stable, balanced, resilient, healthy, maximally diverse or free of human influence to serve as a valuable reference point for our society’s occupation of land. In fact, it has a crucial role to play in helping us understand who we are as residents of a landscape that really is historical, whether we acknowledge this or not, where we fit in the narrative, and how we can better understand our responsibilities to the land—hardly minor considerations, but ones Marris never acknowledges.
Marris proceeds to investigate a series of sometimes controversial approaches to conservation, first critiquing the standard “wilderness” model and finding it lacking. This is where the book gets both interesting and confusing. She is absolutely right to emphasize in one example after another the pervasiveness of human influence and change before the arrival of modern European civilization. She is right to point out the gross undervaluing of the ecological impact of indigenous peoples all around the world, a misunderstanding or mis-representation that seriously impairs our own thinking about our place in nature both as a species and as modern and post-modern citizens of the land community. In this she follows not only Mann’s 1491 (2005), but also Stephen Pyne’s Fire in America (1997), and Tim Flannery’s The Eternal
Frontier (2001) to name only a few authors who have presented the same thesis in somewhat more detail. Her treatment of indigenous influence seems to me overstated and ecologically strained, but her point is well taken. And she is right to pinpoint one of the sources of this undervaluing in a preference by natural historians and ecologists for studying “unsullied” nature, though this has changed markedly in recent years. She in fact leaves few stones unturned in her effort to disabuse us of any idea that nature was Edenic, that John Muir’s wilderness ever existed, or that we could ever find or achieve such a condition of nature. In this Marris does conservation and her readers a service. She is not the first to say this, but she does it well enough.
Yet, there are two issues I would bring up: the first is technical and the second philosophical. First, Marris and Flannery (2001) and many others dating back to Paul Martin’s classic work (1967) point out, probably correctly, that
humans were implicated in the extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna, not simply in North and South America, but in Australia, Madagascar, the Polynesian islands, and elsewhere. When human populations come in contact with a new set of food resources, they typically grow rapidly, overexploit the resource and degrade it. But this raises some questions. Why did the megafauna survive in Africa? How did bison, moose, and elk survive the Holocene in what everyone seems to agree was a densely populated North America? Similarly, how did kangaroos survive 40,000 years of living with aboriginal Australians. We are told that their long familiarity with people allowed them to evolve new behaviors to avoid the hunter. [Read more…]