Six Questions — September 24, 2013, 8:00 am

The Once and Future World: Nature As it Was, As it Is, As it Could Be

J. B. MacKinnon on human efforts to engineer nature, and whether we can restore what we’ve lost

J. B. MacKinnon. © Alisa Smith

J. B. MacKinnon. © Alisa Smith

“Picture the first place you thought of as nature,” begins Canadian writer J. B. MacKinnon in his latest book, The Once and Future World (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). “It is an illusion that has in many ways created our world.” MacKinnon, the coauthor of Plenty, the book that introduced the world to the 100-Mile Diet, reminds us that the planet used to be home to nearly unfathomable diversity and abundance. Invoking the days when the Serengeti was densely forested, bison herds roamed California, and beavers grew to the size of small bears, he notes the trend in conservation circles toward “re-wilding” certain species and asks what we think we’re restoring wilderness to, why we’re doing so, and whether we can succeed. Ultimately, he argues that although humans have been responsible for great degradation of the natural world, it is still possible to enter an “age of restoration” — we have not yet passed a point of no return. “Nature may not be what it was, no, but it isn’t simply gone,” he writes. “It’s waiting.” I asked MacKinnon six questions about the world, the world that once was, and the world that we’re heading toward.

1. You write that we now live in a ten-percent world — one that has lost the vast abundance of its great species — and use the term “change blindness” to explain the phenomenon by which we fail to appreciate what that world once looked like. As you explain, we seem incapable of remembering the natural bounty that used to exist. How can we restore our ecosystems if we don’t remember their potential?

It isn’t that we’re not capable of remembering nature as it was, so much as it takes a conscious effort to do so. In the book, I write about a whale that swam into the heart of urban Vancouver — if it were Manhattan, we’d be talking about a whale spouting and flashing its flukes offshore of the East Village. Vancouverites saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, because hardly anyone was aware that whales lived in the area by the hundreds until they were hunted out a century ago. History, as the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur puts it, is “too much memory here, too little memory there.”

The natural world has had far too little memory, and that has had serious consequences. If you know that whales belong to Vancouver’s past, then it becomes possible to imagine their presence in the future. If you aren’t aware of that history, then the absence of whales will seem perfectly normal — natural, in fact.

2. Shortly after I read The Once and Future World, I went for a walk with a friend in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park for the first time. Water cascaded over rocks, shimmering lakes reflected the early morning sun, and trails threaded their way through dense forests. It was beautiful. And then I realized that none of it was “real.” The waterfalls flow with city tap water, piped through a faucet that pours into manmade lakes; the boulders are strategically placed; and many of the trees are non-native species. I felt jilted. It reminded me of the story you tell about the origins of the foxes you treasured in the Canadian prairie where you grew up, which were imported by European sport hunters in the 1700s. “They were,” you write, “not much more a part of the natural order than the housing development that had displaced them.” What is it about authenticity that dictates our perception of what is real and wild? Can human-engineered nature still be nature?

I think the rubber hits the road on the question of an “authentic” natural world when we refer to baseline states of nature. It has become the fashion to declare that there is no original state of nature in any given place, because nature is constantly in flux. That’s true, but it’s also true that on human time scales, nature often follows broadly predictable patterns and is sometimes practically timeless. Where I live, on the Pacific coast, some forests haven’t been disturbed by so much as a fire in 12,000 years. If you cut that old-growth down and replace it with a parking lot, you can’t then shrug your shoulders and say, “Nature is all about change.”

To me, baselines are least useful when we treat nature like a heritage building that needs to be restored to exactly what it was at some specific time. They’re most useful as a measure of nature’s potential. Every line of evidence suggests that the natural world of the past was more abundant and diverse — had more stuff in more places — than we see today. The history of nature in any given place is loaded with useful information about how we might work toward that kind of richness again. Does that mean we’ll bring black bears back to Prospect Park? Probably not. But we’re sure to find clues that could guide us toward a wilder Brooklyn. Here’s one, in fact: in the late 1700s, Peter Cortelyou was catching 100,000 American shad a year off Bay Ridge. Thirty years later, his catch was down by 96 percent.

3. You describe an imaginary undiscovered place, Lost Island, where the natural world is utterly unspoiled; “birdsong builds into a cacophony” and “the reefs are an explosion of color, as if a crowd had opened a thousand bright umbrellas beneath the sea.” And yet you allow that for it to be genuinely untouched, the island would also have poisonous snakes, saber-toothed tigers, and, “my god, the mosquitoes!” We covet natural beauty, but do we romanticize the idea? How do our own preferences impact conservation efforts?

I have a blue-sky theory that this is actually another symptom of life in a degraded environment. It has become easy to romanticize nature, because nature no longer presents much of a threat. Not long ago, for example, I fell asleep alone on a beach beside a campfire and woke up with wolf tracks all around me. Sleeping under the stars had been a romantic idea, and it was supported by the firm — and incorrect — belief that nothing would eat me in the night.

I’m concerned about the romantic appreciation of nature, because I don’t want a kinder, gentler nature to become a desirable condition. Kind and gentle nature is a garden. Wild nature, that place where natural forces can fully express their genius, is not only the crucible of evolution that created the living world — it also has the most to offer to the human imagination. It’s a place where essential truths of life and death play out endlessly, and in endless variation, and in its absence we are living less than we could be.

4. The idea of “rewilding” repeats itself in many conservation efforts you highlight. I was particularly struck by an example of an effort you describe to eliminate human-introduced goats from the Galápagos Islands in order to restore dwindling tortoise populations. “Aerial sharpshooters in helicopters eventually put in the equivalent of fifty full days and nights of flying time, killing an average of fifty goats per hour,” you write. “By the end of the blitz, the average density of carcasses left behind was fifteen per square kilometer.”

Although the effort was a success from the tortoises’ point of view, killing blitzes carried out by sharpshooters don’t fit the conventional image of the tree-hugging conservationist. How far is too far when we make efforts to restore or “rewild” nature to what it once was?

We’ve had a century to become familiar with the idea of conservation, and in particular the notion that there’s an ultimate sanctum called “the wilderness” that is degraded by any human influence. What the history of nature tells us, though, is that even the places most of us think of as wild — Yellowstone National Park is a telling example — have been transformed and degraded by human actions over decades, if not millennia. If we want a wilder world, we have to make it so. As one biologist put it to me, we are “condemned to art.”

Many people wince when they hear those words, because it seems to open the door for humans to simply design nature as we see fit — to garden the world, rather than to rewild it. That’s certainly not my argument. I say we need to remember, reconnect, and rewild — in that order. We first need to take a careful look at the past in order to understand nature’s potential and to guide our decisions, for example about what species we might need to remove or reintroduce. We need to reconnect with nature, to become more ecologically literate, so that we are alert to the impacts of our choices. Finally, we can remake a wilder world.

I support traditional conservation, which separates people and nature. But we’re struggling — failing, so far — to fully protect the 12 percent of the planet we’ve decided to preserve, and I find myself wondering about the other 88 percent. I’d argue that, in order to truly conserve a living planet, we should be seeking the best possible balance between human values and ecological processes everywhere. In the Galápagos, that might mean killing introduced goats in order to allow a globally unique ecosystem to return to something like its ancient evolutionary path. In the heart of a city, it might mean changing the way we light urban space in order to respect an equally ancient bird migration route.

5. You talk about seeing in Yellowstone National Park “a paparazzi of the predators.” I worked for a few summers as a park interpreter in Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada, and every day, calls would go out over the radio about “bear jams” — the gridlock that appeared whenever wildlife was spotted along a roadway. The way many of us interact with wild places has always struck me as interesting; we seem to prefer to watch them rather than be in them. In a world where many of us, as you describe, “spend more time in virtual landscapes than in natural ones,” what do we gain from reconnecting with nature? And why do we have such an intense desire to capture our experience in photos and videos?

I think we watch nature because it still fascinates us, and yet our disconnection from it forbids a deeper engagement. In Yellowstone I was struck by how crowded the roads were, and how empty the trails. It makes sense, though. Most Americans are as unfamiliar with their own wild landscapes as they are with the Serengeti plains. They would no sooner hike through grizzly country than they would plan a DIY safari across Africa on foot.

I try not to think too hard about why we find nature so compelling — the answers lie too far back in our evolution to ever know fully. Instead, in this book, I try to show how strangely, potently satisfying reconnection to nature can be. I took part in a twenty-four-hour birdwatching marathon, for example, and it was a revelation. It was an amazingly hopeful experience. We saw nearly 120 species of bird, more than I would possibly have imagined, and the world around me suddenly seemed so much more full of life. The experience was also cautionary, in that I saw with my own eyes how many species depended on the narrowest of niches, how some could disappear from an area with a single pass of a bulldozer’s blade. I was humbled, too: I may never forget the tiny ruby-crowned kinglets singing in the snow 5,200 feet above sea level, while I shivered in soaking wet bike gear. It was crystal clear in that moment that human beings are the center of the universe from only one perspective, and that is our own.

The Once and Future World6. You call the twentieth century the golden age of conservation, and predict that our era will be “an age of re-wilding” — one in which human beings will learn once again to see ourselves as part of nature, rather than separate from it. Thinking of ourselves in this way requires a shift in perspective. How can we re-wild ourselves as a species?

One of the most challenging parts of writing The Once and Future World was wrestling with the idea, put forward by various ecologists and anthropologists, that the most successful human relationships to nature are “social.” The very word sounded ridiculous to my ears. It took a trip to Hawaii, and long conversations with indigenous Hawaiians who were trying to understand their own historical approaches to land management, to begin to make any sense of it. I met a young man there whose family had traditionally practiced a fire-throwing ritual, until it was discontinued during the chaos of European contact and settlement. He was trying to bring the ritual back to life, but couldn’t use wood from the traditionally preferred variety of tree because it was now an endangered species. Here was culture and nature bound together: a cultural practice had disappeared, which meant that the human constituency with an interest in this particular plant’s continued existence had also disappeared. It was a social relationship — each was critically important to the other.

In a more general sense, I now find myself comparing co-existence with other species to life in a multicultural city: it’s complicated and demands innovation and often education, but when it works it creates the most exciting societies the world has ever known. Few people who live in multicultural cities would say it’s easy, but even fewer, I think, would say they would prefer homogeneity. The shared culture of difference becomes a part of our individual identities, and at that point, a harm to diversity really does become a harm to us all. Now consider a similar relationship, this time not to cultural but to ecological complexity, and we have what I would consider the rewilding of the human being. Ecology as a part of identity. It’s about as close as we can come, I think, to understanding what Thoreau really meant when he said, “In wildness is the salvation of the world.”

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  • Jenni

    Such interesting points. I do hope for this to be an age of re-wilding. I wonder if the love of technology and the Disney-fied idea of wildlife and overly manicured spaces will (or have already) tainted our thirst for authentic natural spaces?

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