Frederick Turner begins his philosophically-laden piece on ecological restoration with a lyrical, somewhat dramatic depiction of nature reminiscent of a Thoreau, a Muir, or any nineteenth-century Romantic poet. With its “pale yellowish jade freshness,” its “towering bluestem,” and the “brilliant emerald clumps of hair-leaved dropseed,” the Greene Prairie at the University of Wisconsin is truly a sight of the natural world to behold. Then, all of a sudden, Turner announces that this is not the pretty little (natural) prairie we often perceive and expect from such elations; it is instead an intentionally planted and maintained human creation. Turner deceived us… his pristine prairie is a farce!
What are the implications of a restored landscape? What happens when we learn that a landscape has been restored, and thus altered from its “natural” state? These seem to be the questions driving the restoration debate. On one side, ecological restoration renders the landscape an artifact, unreversibly inferior to its supposed natural precedent. On the other, restoration is a boon to humanity in a bid to preserve, at least in some way, an otherwise fallen “natural” environment; a band aid that effectively intends to “stop the bleeding” and make the best out of a bad situation.
To be honest, I don’t fully understand the brouhaha over the morality of ecological restoration – environmentalists need not occupy themselves with the yes or no of restoration, but the how. We have already tainted the natural world in countless ways – so much so that it puts into question the very definition of “natural.” I understand that restoration may lead to a slippery slope of human arrogance (the idea that humans themselves can create environments at their own discretion), yet what harm is there in restoration if it is done in a manner that enhances the lived experience of all the organisms in an ecosystem?
That, I think, is one of the main talking points in the Turner article. Importantly, he asks, “Is not Homo sapiens in this case just another vector that the prairie biome employs to reproduce itself?” The engine of evolution churns on, indiscriminately and endlessly, regardless of whether a prairie has been restored by human hands or not. While authors such as Katz blather about the moral implications of ecological restoration (it’s not real… it’s forgery!), in light of the sheer scale and diversity of life, Turner doesn’t seem too concerned. The experience of things being alive – whatever those things may be – is something to be enjoyed, celebrated, and fostered. Turner seems to embody and encourage a worldview in which humans see ourselves as the fusion of the knowledge that we are but one of countless evolutionary byproducts of nature, yet at the same time its ultimate custodian.
Greek philosopher Heraclitus, thousands of years before Darwin, said “Life bubbles forth.” At the most basic level, the restored prairie and the “natural” prairie (whatever that means) are one and the same: the organisms in both environments are made of the very same stuff. The (genetic) makeup of the restored prairie is not some anomaly in the natural world. Are not nature and life constantly renewing and restoring themselves? Are we not all mere vectors of nature’s voracious seed, this ever-giving, bubbling-forth life force?