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Nature is in the mind

November 6, 2011

“It was when his lapdog, Tory, got eaten by a wolf that Horace Walpole began to have serious reservations about Mont Cenis.”  Walpole climbed the mountain carried by four porters; and as Schama describes in Landscape and Memory, the 18th century British writer constructed his own view as artfully as a painter at a canvas. Today, we laugh at ourselves for our modern approach to “nature,” as we drive our air-conditioned campers into herds of buffalo at Yellowstone; but Schama reminds us that westerners have long constructed own civilized views of our “wild” surroundings.

Schama argues that there has never been such a thing as “nature” outside the human mind. Both mentally, as well as in actuality, from native Americans to the ancient Chinese, humans have manipulated nature and reconstructed it. Today as never before, we cannot even pretend to live “outside society” like Thoreau supposedly did in Walden (but visited friends for dinner.) We have no choice but to choose–which species to save, which to promote and which to fight.

What should be our ground rules? How should we decide what species and landscapes are worth our time and treasure?

In The Children Star, I imagine humans discovering a planet that appears empty of intelligence yet turns out to be “managed” to the last detail by a hidden intelligent species. Suppose an alien race came to Earth, carried by robot porters, and set out describing our planet. Would they figure out who is running it? Or just write off humans as a messy invasive species?

  1. gwionis permalink
    November 6, 2011 10:02 am

    That depends on whether the aliens have the concept of “running it”, maybe?

    I went for a hike yesterday, in the woods, and it occurred to me to wonder if there’s really anywhere that the landscape isn’t in some way managed by humans (antarctica, perhaps?). Because the woods I was hiking in weren’t really that wild, and I don’t just mean because they had a trail right through them. We also passed a drainage ditch (with a bridge over it), a “prairie in progress” even though I’m pretty sure “prairie” isn’t the natural ecosystem for that area (it would be woods, actually, that’s what grows if you leave it alone) and some large round abandoned structures that I wasn’t sure what they were but were definitely of human origin.

  2. November 6, 2011 11:16 am

    Personally, I like the permaculture concept that “every organism gardens its environment.” The point is to get away from the nature vs. civilization dichotomy, and to start looking at how many organisms and ecosystem functions a particular landscape can support.

    There are two things going on here. One is that the nature vs. civilization is a construct that gets in the way, in far too many ways. We’re all part of one biosphere, however we label it, and we do better when we start getting away from intellectual dichotomies. Preservation and conservation are fine, especially when what you are saving are complex landscapes that you cannot replicate or replace.

    The second thing is to get away from the static view of nature. Every organism changes things. We’re no different.

    In gwionis’ example of a prairie, you get prairie with fire and/or grazing, and you get woodlands without fire. Prior to 1492, there probably was prairie (or more likely savanna) there, because the area was regularly burned by Indians. Prior to humans and the glaciers, prairies and savannas existed for millions of years because a combination of grazers and fires. The point is that prairies occur in heavily disturbed landscapes. You cannot say what “should” be in the Midwest, because there are native Midwestern species that are adapted both to heavy disturbance (prairie and savanna plants) and to no disturbance (woodlands), just as there are herbivores that favor either the grass or the trees. The “prairie in progress” is someone’s attempt to get more disturbance species into that particular landscape.

    • alex tolley permalink
      November 6, 2011 11:51 am

      I couldn’t have said it any better. 100% agree with you.

      To add to your point about the artificial nature vs civilization dichotomy. We still talk about human desires with regard to animal breeding as “artificial”, whilst all the rest of life is engaged in natural selection, or sex selection. The proverbial Martian might have a much harder time making that distinction.

  3. Frank Caesar Branchini permalink
    November 6, 2011 11:19 am

    One of the biggest mistakes human beings make is believing we can “run” nature as we have senselessly wiped out species, done irreparable damage to the environment, and caused potentially catastrophic changes to the climate.

  4. alex tolley permalink
    November 6, 2011 12:07 pm

    What if we turn the question around 180 degrees. Instead of trying to preserve the existing ecosystem patterns, which heteromeles reminds us are dynamic, albeit on long time scales, what if we try to create new patterns to increase ecosystem diversity? Instead of being concerned about “invasives” or “exotics”, we actively encourage this. What if we try to increase the biota and biomass of landscapes that are relatively poor, using artificial means, including local geo-engineering?

    Our knowledge of how to do this is quite poor today, and the good and bad results of most of what we do is accidental. OTOH, we are quite good at gardening and farming which are both energy intensive activities and fairly unstable dynamically. Perhaps we can think in terms of high energy maintenance rather than self-sustaining systems?

    At the relatively small scale, we have the different biome greenhouses at Kew Gardens and the Eden Project (both in the UK) and similar scale examples at some zoos, e.g. San Diego.

    O’Neill thought that we would build arcologies that would contain desired ecosystems on earth, rather like earthly versions of his space colonies (2081). It is an engineering centric idea, yet probably more in tune with what the bulk of humans want – desirable, comfortable places to live.

  5. November 6, 2011 8:55 pm

    Gwionis: Wherever you’re hiking, it’s likely that humans “cultivated” that region at some point, then it overgrew again. The Iroquois, for example, had a habit of cultivating a space, then abandoning it as the soil lost fertility. That’s why in their greeting to a traveler (which I quote in The Highest Frontier) they mention that on your journey through apparent wilderness you may encounter ghosts of people who used to dwell there.

  6. November 6, 2011 9:02 pm

    Frank points out how badly humans have “run” nature.
    Yet do we have a choice *not* to run it? By default, all regions are impacted by pollutant chemicals and global climate change. Even Antarctica has all kinds of pollutants.

    Certain wilderness lands are closed to the public by government decree–perhaps someone can help me out with examples? The most extreme example I know is the Nicobar islands, where literally nobody is allowed (and pirates who go anyway get skewered by the natives).

    Eventually, though, pollution will get there. In UK, I hear there is so much Prozac in the water that everyone is literally “on” Prozac. (!) Anyone have more details on that?

    • paws4thot permalink
      November 7, 2011 9:29 am

      Para #3 – If that’s true at all (cite please if you have one), I’d suspect that it’s only true of some English cities such as London, that draw their mains water supply from a river that’s already been used for mains water by several other towns and cities first.

      Conversely, Birmingham, and most of Scotland draw their water supply directly from rainfall into watersheds that do not first supply another settlement. I’d be most surprised if you found any artificial chemicals other than agricultural ones, water treatment ones, and those acquired from the soil and pipes in their water. I would go on, but I’ve examined examples that I know the base water supplies of.

      • November 7, 2011 9:54 am

        That’s interesting; what do you study in water? I’m very interested in water treatment systems.
        The effects are unclear, but many sources report finding drugs in waterways.
        Prozac in UK drinking water:
        Prozac in the Great Lakes:
        Japanese study (note–I find the conclusions dubious)

      • November 7, 2011 8:52 pm

        Paws4thot: If you would like to offer your expertise for a post on water supplies, that would be great; let me know at my email. Water issues deserve more attention in science fiction.

      • paws4thot permalink
        November 8, 2011 6:41 am

        Firstly, I’m an engineer Joan, not a chemist! (Sorry, but I had to do it).

        Seriously, my study, and a hobby study at that, is about the civil engineering of water supply, not the chemical composition of the water (including disolved and suspended substances, bacteria etc) itself.

        I do speak chemistry and physics, and am learning more biology, though. I basically agree with your cites, and reservations, subject to the following note. The “Environment Agency” cited by the BBC and Guardian reports only operates in England. The equivalent body in Scotland would be the “Scottish Environmental Protection Agency”. If you’d like me to introduce you to one of SEPA’s fairly senior staff who may know more than I do about water contamination in Scotland, I’ll be happy to do so.

    • November 7, 2011 5:10 pm

      Joan, there are a lot of lands that are “closed,” in the US, but very few of them are off limits. The problem is that very few of them have enough wardens and rangers to keep trespassers away. Indeed, I routinely trespass in one such area, simply to pick up trash, and to educate other hikers about what not to step on so that they don’t harm the rare species that are supposedly protected by the breached fences. While the reserve manager is aware of what I’m doing, she’s too busy to give me a letter saying it’s okay for me to be there. And so it goes.

      • November 7, 2011 8:54 pm

        You’re right; none of the parks have enough wardens. We look down on Africa for how their parks get poached–yet ours in the USA are far worse. The worst is the drug lords who set up meth labs etc. Glacier and other national parks are increasingly despoiled by the drug trade.

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