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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October 2018


The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

Number of toilet seats at the EU Parliament building in Brussels that a TV station had tested for cocaine:


Happiness creates a signature smell in human sweat that can induce happiness in those who smell it.

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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