How Can We Heal the Land?

A lot of the presentations so far, beginning with the presentations last night, have been somewhat elegiac—nostalgic looks back. One of the distinctive things about living in the New World—North America, South America, Australia—is that you don't have to go back that far to get to something very different from what we have now. Here in Texas you go back just two or three generations and you've got stories from your grandparents about the prairies that people could ride through for a hundred miles with the bluebonnets brushing their stirrups. And now all that is mostly gone.

That is part of the American experience: this tremendous sense of a diminished landscape—the question, as Robert Frost put it, of what to make of a diminished thing.

But, of course, as a people we don't really like to think of ourselves as just dealing with a diminished thing. That’s depressing. It's un-American. As Ellen Temple said in her remarks this morning, we’d rather look ahead to find answers to our questions, solutions to our problems. And to do that we need what critic Leo Marx called “new symbols of possibility.” I'd like to talk with you about this morning about environmental restoration, not just as a conservation strategy but as a new symbol of possibility.

People often find the idea of environmental—or ecological—restoration confusing. I think that's because it mixes a warm, fuzzy thing with a sort of mechanical-sounding thing.

But it's really a simple idea. Everyone knows what "restoration" means. It means taking something that's broken or run down or degraded and returning it to some former (usually "better" or more desirable condition). You can do that to a car, a house, an old violin—or an ecosystem.

In any case, this is a pretty demanding idea. There is something categorical about it, something that calls for perfection and completeness. If you set about to restore a thing—not just some quality of the thing, but the thing itself—you want to restore all its qualities. In the case of an ecosystem or landscape, that means you want all the species, in more or less the correct historic proportions. And you want the processes and the dynamics. We want our restored system not only to look like the historic model but also to behave like it as well.

And we don't care about human interests. We're playing a game here in which we set those aside—in what I call a studied disregard for our own tastes and concerns. This is what distinguishes restoration from other forms of environmental stewardship, such as conservation of natural resources or reclamation of land by planting trees or crops on it, developing it as a source of clean water or fiber or game animals.

I'm not saying anything against this, just that it's different. The restorationist says, you want fuel, you want fiber, you want ruffed grouse? Well, we don't care. We're going to put this place back the way it was, and we don't care what you want—we're just going to do it this way. If there were bluebonnets, fine, we'll put them in. But if there were unpleasant things—rattlesnakes, say, or poison oak or frequent fires, things we don't happen to like—well, they go in, too.

Why, you might ask, would anyone want to do that? I can think of at least two important reasons. First, that's the only way you can hope to preserve the old, natural, "original" landscape. You just can't do that if you simply copy the parts you happen to like. The second reason, which is just as important if not more so, has to do with the meanings that come out of the work itself. Think of it as a game. We play many games with nature. Agriculture is a game. So is medicine and education and art. These games are important in part because of the work they get done. But also because of the meanings they create. And these depend on the rules of the game. Restoration is an important game because it is the game in which we set aside our own interests and preferences in an attempt simply to copy the natural landscape, to defer as fully as we can to nature. That makes it an act of humility. It also makes it an ideal way of defining ourselves in ecological terms by trying to disappear—in an ecological sense—from the landscape, to make it "forget" we are here.

The idea of ecological restoration actually has a long history. It goes back to biblical times in the West. The idea of a Sabbath for the land—the opportunity for the land to rest and recover in an agricultural cycle every seven years, for example—is a kind of restoration. So is the replanting of trees on cutover land, or the rotation of crops as a farming principle.

In a purely ecological sense, the idea of restoration goes back about a century. I would locate the beginning of it in this sense around the beginning of the twentieth century, especially in the work of a number of landscape architects, including Frederick Law Olmsted and the kind of work that he did in Central Park. That was not exactly what we would today call ecological restoration, but it came close. It was almost restoration because it was an attempt to create a miniature "natural" landscape. But it wasn't quite restoration because the representation of the model landscape was somewhat stylized, not quite authentic or ecologically accurate.

Out here on the prairies designers were doing similar things—Jens Jensen in Chicago, for example, or the people responsible for managing roadside vegetation here in Texas, bringing back the bluebonnets.

So this work has its roots in agriculture and in landscape design. It also has roots in game management and forestry, which, in some forms, are strongly restorative.

But one of the interesting things about twentieth-century environmentalism is that, although this idea of restoration existed, and pretty much in its current modern form by the 1920s and 1930s, no one did much with it.

This is an interesting and important thing. It tells us a lot about environmentalism—about our many environmentalisms and their limitations. In fact, I believe that the neglect of restoration by a succession of environmentalisms for almost a hundred years will turn out to be one of the great defining mistakes of twentieth-century environmentalism.

And I can say that now without being terribly negative because we're getting past that. In the last decade or two we have begun to discover restoration, not only as a conservation strategy, but as a way of learning about the natural or historic landscape and as a context for negotiating our relationship with it.

And this has enormous implications for environmentalism. Think about it for a minute. So long as we think that the natural—or what I prefer to call the "classic" landscape—is irreplaceable, which was the way we talked about it in the sixties and seventies and into the eighties, then all we can do is lose them. Then the best we can hope to do is slow the rate of loss.

And if there's no going back, no prospect of restoration and recovery, then eventually—in 50, 100, 500 years—it's all going to be gone. And that's depressing. It's depressing because it's sad to think of the world diminished and impoverished that way, and by us. And it's depressing because it really means we don't belong on this planet.

The discovery that you can restore a classic ecosystem like a prairie—and this idea really grew up on the prairies here in the Midwest—changes that. For one thing, it means that maybe we can recover lost ground.

And it also means that we have a positive, constructive relationship with the classic landscape. And that means maybe we do belong on this planet. And that's good news.

Now, I don't want to overstate this—I don't want to make it sound easy. It's not. Nobody who's involved in this work suggests that it's easy.

But it is, in some cases, possible to get back a reasonably good version of at least some classic ecosystems.

And what we are finding is that doing this has value in itself, as a way of learning about the landscape, about its ecology, about its history, and about our relationship with it.

What is exciting right now is that restorationists are really beginning to discover the value of this work—or this play, this game we play with nature. And it is turning out to be the key to a healthy relationship with it. It provides something we did not have before: a way of working, and playing, in the classic landscape, on its own terms—a model for the human "use" of these landscapes that, I predict, within a generation will define the way Americans use natural lands such as the national parks and wilderness areas.

And this is good news for nature. Because, as Bob pointed out this morning, what we really need, in order to provide a future for these landscapes, is a way to reinhabit them. This is of a piece with learning to farm sensibly—the sort of thing that Laura was showing us this morning: those farmers who are discovering that they can grow crops without pesticides and artificial fertilizer are actually in a kind of restorative mode, and they are reinhabiting the landscape in somewhat the same way I'm talking about here.

But I'm talking a specialized version of that, in which our concern is specifically with the classic landscape, which we've decided is going to be restored, not to make it productive or useful, but with, as I said, a studied disregard for our immediate interests.

The restorationist does that by very deliberately attempting to copy—not imitate, but copy—the classic landscape. And in the process he or she really does reinhabit it.

To get a feel for this, let's take a look at a few slides that Steve Windhager put together for me from his collection out at the Wildflower Center.

This is what it looks like. It involves little kids out collecting seeds in the prairie.

Very simple. But it is the solution to a big problem. Laura was telling us this morning that they can't have their kids in the creek up there in Iowa because it's dirty. So the question is, how can we get ourselves and our kids back in that classic landscape? This is part of the answer. Let them be gatherers—which is really what they are anyway, reliving the most basic, primal kind of human relationship with nature.

Or gardeners, setting out plants—a human activity that dates back to the dawn of agriculture. Weeding—what Thoreau called making invidious distinctions with the hoe.

And fire—of course, this is an exciting way to weed the prairie. And the discovery of the need to burn prairie, in order to restore and maintain it, was one of the major discoveries of restorationists in the 1940s and 1950s.

People love these fires. Some even plan their vacations around the spring burns, the way they might plan a skiing trip. "Oh, we can't go in March," they'll say. "We'll be burning the prairies." Why do they feel that way? Fred Turner, who teaches at the University of Texas in Dallas, put his finger right on it. He says people come to feel that way about the burning of the prairies because the burns dramatize our role in the ecology of the prairie. They dramatize the fact that the prairies need us, just as we need the prairies. So maybe we do belong on this planet. That is good news—it makes people happy.

And we do science on these plots, too. So you see there's a sense that the restorationist actually recapitulates the entire history of our species, hunting and gathering through agriculture right down to science.

All this may seem pretty modest, pretty unprepossessing. But we are learning that it has profound implications both for the classic landscape and for our relationship with it.

It is important, first of all, because it changes the sign of our relationship from negative to positive. The restorationist goes into the landscape and leaves it "better"—more "natural"—than it was. No one else, not even the birder or the backpacker, does that.

It is important because it makes us aware, not only of the landscapes we try to restore and their ecology and history, but of our relationship with them, and the history of that relationship. It makes use aware of that history because it requires us to study it and then try to repeat it, or to reverse it.

It is important because it is a way of participating in the ecology of the landscape—not just observing or studying it, but actively participating in it, the way other species do.

It is important because it is a way of offering a gift back to nature in recognition of what it has given us.

If that gift is obviously inadequate in many ways—smaller and poorer than the "original"—that is important, too, because it forces us to confront the inequities and imbalances that are inherent in our relationships with nature, as in all relationships: a manifestation of the tension and trouble inherent in nature itself, which is (we must remind ourselves) at odds with itself in the very act of creation.

It is important because anyone can do it. You don't have to leave the city and go up to the Hill Country to "do nature" if you are a restorationist, because the city is a good place to do restoration. And, unlike the Hill Country, where our relationship to the land is essentially consumptive (and therefore in a sense exclusive), there is no end to it. It is ecological junk picking—that is, creative, discerning, constructive work—and so the more people there are, the better.

And it is important because it is social. Not that we can't do restoration alone. We can, and many do. But the work lends itself to collaboration, to socializing, and ultimately to celebration and festival.