Nature, Real and Novel

And the scientists, no matter how much they investigate nature, no matter how far they research, they only come to realize in the end how perfect and mysterious nature really is. To believe that by research and invention humanity can create something better than nature is an illusion.” — Masanobu Fukuoka

There’s not anything inherently special about the Pacific Northwest. Or rather, there is, but not more so than there is something inherently special about any place on Earth that a human or other creature, big or small, has made their home. I write about this one because it happens to be the place that I have called home for most of my life, and the only one I’ve ever felt rooted. I feel deeply about this place, about these trees and my ability to describe all the different kinds of gray the sky can be in a place that is mostly gray (and green) for nine months out of the year. But there is more to it than that. It’s the only place I’ve been long enough to know, not just as a place, but as a place in the context of time. Because there’s no other way to look at the relationships between people and the land and the other things that inhabit it. Looking at how things are now can tell you very little about how they’ve changed, about damage that’s been done or symbiotic relationships that have been built or broken, or repeating cycles of death and regeneration and fire and seasons and sustenance. My thirty-some years are irrelevant on the scale of time, of course. But they’re the only point of reference I have, so they are where I start.

Novel (adj.): original or striking especially in conception or style

The world is large; there are far more places I haven’t seen than ones I have. I can’t say much about those that others couldn’t say better. But here are a few of the most novel things I’ve seen of the natural world, here in the Pacific Northwest:

On a boat in the San Juan Islands, in the northwest corner of this northwest state, a pod of orca whales, breaching all around. You’re not allowed to move your boat within one hundred yards of whales, to give them their space, but if you’re sitting still and they come to you – well. Orcas seem big when you see them from far away, but when you see them just one boat length away, it’s another story altogether; you can feel their wisdom and their power, and if you’re me, you want to do everything you can to make the ocean safe for them again, even though you know it might be too late.

The redwood forest in Southern Oregon and Northern California: it is one thing to read about big trees, and another to see them in person. I thought I’d seen big trees, and sure, I had, but not like this. Even as you’re doing it, it’s hard to fathom walking through stands of trees older than the country itself, in its current formation, though not the land or people inhabiting it, of course. This reinforces the idea that beyond the way they allow profit-seekers to remove trees en masse, geopolitical entities are a construct not relevant to a tree, not that large scale removal is any small matter. Fog glancing through the boughs and knowing that underfoot, invisible to me, they communicate, pass chemical messages to one another through touching root tips and mycelium networks that bind them together. Emerging, eventually, from the forest onto a rocky beach typical of the Northwest, two worlds not quite coexisting, but sharing a boundary comfortably at least.

The summit of Mount Rainier, called Mount Tahoma by the people who were here first, an alien landscape of ice, the giant crater a vivid reminder that it is an active volcano, the wind too harsh and the air too thin to want to stay for long. It’s hard to imagine that anything could live there, in the thin air and thick sheets of ice. Things almost certainly do though: life always proves hardier than humans, in our own fragility, expect that it could be. Watching the sun rise there above the clouds, the shadow of the mountain itself visible as a sharp line of shadow leaning right, reminds you both of how small you really are, and about the outsized impact that even small things can have.

Novel (adj.): new and different from what has been known before

Novel ecosystem (according to Richard Hobbs, at the time the editor in chief of the journal Restoration Ecology): a system of abiotic, biotic, and social components (and their interactions) that, by virtue of human influence, differ from those that prevailed historically, having a tendency to self-organize and manifest novel qualities without intensive human management.

This definition of a novel ecosystem feels tractable at first. Given the difficulty of restoring ecosystems to their historical state, it feels, if not desirable exactly, like something we could settle for and not lose too much sleep at night. If ecosystems can self-organize, and therefore presumably not collapse into monoculture, how bad can it be? Especially if they manage to do so without us.

It does reveal a kind of giving up though, whether intentional or not. The acknowledgement that it’s too late in most places: too much has already been lost and the historical baseline cannot be restored. Rather than calling this giving up, some would declare this as a “shifting baseline” instead. It could be either or both, though the difference is not innocuous, one suggesting a level of intention that the other does not. The term “shifting baseline” is used beyond ecology, to indicate that the reference point against which something is measured shifts over time. We forget how things were three generations ago and measure the current state of something against how it was when we were children, all change that happened before then lost to the annals of time. To look back only a generation, or even three, uses a definition of “historical” that is inadequate for an ecosystem, to which the idea of human generations is itself meaningless.

Beyond my own knee-jerk reaction to be irritated at the implication that an ecosystem can only be novel (original! striking!) once changed irrevocably by human influence, this idea becomes problematic in other ways too. Namely, that it’s difficult to think of examples that actually meet all the criteria. Agricultural lands differ from the prevailing historical conditions, certainly, but are definitely not self-organizing without human management. Most food crops can’t self-seed, much less fight back weeds or pests without a heavy human, or increasingly, mechanical, hand. National parks, then. But these are more managed than the casual observer would be led to believe. That, of course, being the point: you’re not supposed to know, because national park landscapes also don’t, ideally, differ much from their historical state. This depends on your definition of “historical” though – many of what are now national park lands were lived on and managed by indigenous peoples prior to European colonization. The next possibility that occurs to me as a true novel ecosystem that Hobbs would recognize as such are human-managed landscapes abandoned: the botanic garden let go, to spread and become wild, a “secret garden” of sorts. Closer, I suppose: these definitely differ from a historical baseline, and are no longer managed by humans. But in most cases it would be difficult to argue that they self-organize: typically one or a few of the species will dominate, spread. Invade. This doesn’t quite represent the equilibrium I think Hobbs intended.

Cal Flyn’s book Islands of Abandonment follows this idea of abandonment, exploring places that seem to me possible examples of a novel ecosystem. She writes of how on Swona, an island off the Northern tip of Scotland, a herd of feral cows lives, and has lived for enough generations that they don’t quite resemble their domesticated ancestors anymore. They descend from a domesticated herd that was left behind when the final human inhabitants left the island for the final time, but self-sustain now. She writes too of places ravaged by industry and left heavily contaminated in ways damaging to life, such as the lower Passaic River, where populations of flora and fauna do manage to persist. They often have genetic mutations (that’s all evolution is, anyway) that allow them to survive levels of toxicity well beyond what humans or the majority of their predecessors could. There are certain kinds of flowers that can thrive in soils with high levels of heavy metals, even extracting them from the soil. It’s impossible to hear this and not consider whether the flowers themselves could be part of a human-mediated cleanup effort. I’m not sure whether toxic waste cleanup via flower is poetic or dystopian. Perhaps it is both.

That these novel ecosystems exist is encouraging, in its way: that life can continue even after humans have wreaked havoc or utter destruction in a place (encouraging, if your baseline has shifted to accept human destruction as inevitable). But it leaves me wondering if they can only exist in places that have been so modified by humans that no trace of the historical baseline is present anymore at all. What would “restoration” mean in a place so polluted that even if planted, things that were once native there wouldn’t be able to live? Is “novel” what we get when “restored” is out of reach?

Another way to look at this would be to consider that instead of no ecosystem really being “novel” in the way Hobbs meant, perhaps all of them are. J.B Mackinnon, in his book The Once and Future World, asserts that we live in what he calls a “10% world”: the world we live in today supports only 10% of the life, of the biodiversity, that historical ecologists say that it used to. So if we use a definition of “historical” that goes much farther back, well beyond the holocene, to before there was a human influence at all, then everywhere in the world differs from this historical baseline. Anywhere remotely self-sustaining then, is novel. This too, could be either heartening or demoralizing, depending on your perspective, though I personally find that depth of time too great to really conceptualize in a way that allows me to feel much at all other than awe. It reminds me of the limitations to my own journey to root myself not only in place, but in time.

While I’m sure my own baseline has shifted in a myriad of ways I’m not even aware of, I learned recently of one major way that it has done so, if not during my lifetime, then at least during the lifetime of someone possibly still alive. I know mature forests where I live to the west of the Cascades to be made up primarily of Douglas fir, hemlock, western redcedar, bigleaf maple, red alder…but there’s something recently missing from this list: the western white pine, which was just as common an appearance in these forests a mere one hundred years ago. Sometime around 1910, imported western white pine seedlings from France arrived infected with white pine blister rust. The trees in Europe and Asia co-evolved with this fungus and are not particularly impacted by it: resistance is genetic. But the trees in the Pacific Northwest did not evolve in its presence, and now, about 90% of them are gone from British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon. The physical gaps they have left in the forests have largely been re-colonized by the other native conifers mentioned above, leaving people like me, who were born just barely too late, none the wiser. But the physical is not the only gap. There is another, which leaves me wondering: what else? What other trees, birds, fungi, insects, shrubs, have I not been given the chance to love because they are gone? Western white pine can still be found in California, and because resistance is genetic, efforts are being made to breed resistant trees and reintroduce them. I may have the chance to love them yet, but not without a helping hand from humans, efforts to undo the damage that we unwittingly did. Can restored ecosystems also be novel ones?

This all begs the question: what role does authenticity play in the value and our appreciation of the natural world? What does authenticity even mean, in the context of nature? To ask another question that seems, at least to me, obvious until I actually try to answer it: what is nature?

Authentic (adj): conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features

Nature (n): the external world in its entirety

But external to what? That we consider massive and complex underground ant colonies to be natural, but not human cities, says something about where a line might be drawn: with humans. Aldo Leopold seems to have chosen this line; he famously wrote that “all conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish.” There is no space left in this statement for a possibility that humans could engage in wilderness without causing its destruction, no space for the idea that we could be one creature among many, as much a part of the wilderness as a beetle or bird or berry or bear, it supporting our survival as much as we supported it. It’s admittedly difficult to think of examples of when we have successfully done this, but not impossible.

Even if you choose humans as your dividing line, the distinctions aren’t clear: cities and farms and botanic gardens are all manufactured environments, but almost anybody would make a distinction between a city and a botanic garden, even though they are equally constructed experiences. Indeed, the materials that make up the city, the metal and stone and sure, even plastics in their own way, either are or were once natural. The things that make them up were at some point extracted from the ground, at least. No matter where we decide to draw the line, it’s inarguable that cities, or even botanic gardens, are not untouched, are not “authentic” natural spaces.

In Robert Elliott’s 1982 paper Faking Nature, he considers authenticity by drawing the corollary between “faked” nature and faked works of art. He makes this argument in the context of post-disturbance restoration via environmental engineering. Imagine, for example, a mining company that argues that environmental destruction shouldn’t be considered when deciding whether to move forward with a new project or not, because they’ll restore the land back to its original state when they’re done. Putting aside the fact that environmental restoration to the point where it’s indistinguishable from what was there before is effectively impossible, at least on the time scale typically intended in these conversations, Elliott argues that even if it were, origin matters, and the restored ecosystem wouldn’t have the same value as the original.

To have this conversation at all though, we need to define what we mean by “value.” Moral philosophy approaches this with a framework I find helpful here: the differentiation between instrumental and intrinsic value, which boils down to whether something has value as a means to an end, or as an end in itself. In the context of ecology, that might mean an old growth forest has instrumental value because of the timber that could be logged and sold, or because of the tourism that it might attract – the “ends” we mean here are usually economic. However, if it has intrinsic value, that’s just something it has. Something it is, that can’t be taken away. That large tree (or small sapling), is valuable even if it’s never logged and even if no one ever sees it.

Choosing the instrumental definition is in itself a means to an end, if the “end” is that people are willing to pay attention and take action. There are of course communities and organizations who are committed to their local ecosystems in their own right, though they are often forced to make financially-driven arguments to receive the grant funding or other support they need to effect change. Margaret Palmer, who works at a lab named after her at the University of Maryland, focused on sustainability and ecological restoration, writes that sometimes ecosystems are too far degraded to be restored in all the ways we’d hope for them to be. In those cases, she says, communities get to ask, “What services do we want from rivers? Communities can choose the ones they want and decide on a process to get that.” It’s hard to be taken seriously as a scientist or policy-maker if you’re arguing for the sake of how something makes you feel, of something that can’t be measured at all, but that is our own loss as a society that we discount such things.

What services do we want from rivers? rings in my ears. I don’t want services from a river. I want a river to exist and be what it wants to be. Rivers don’t have wants, at least in a way that we understand as such. But I know that my wants (to live in a world where we don’t ask services of a river) don’t change the fact that, as Margaret Palmer says, sometimes things are too far gone and we can’t get it back. Nor does it change the fact that if we value humans as an important part of natural systems, and assign intrinsic value to human lives as well – which we must – sometimes we do need to ask services of a river. We need fish to feed us, hydropower to produce clean energy, and transportation from here to there. If conservation efforts prove counter to the very valid human needs of clean air and water, sufficient food and shelter because we’ve locked everything away in inaccessible reserves, conservation will have failed, and people will not be willing to participate.

As someone who spends time with trees, I can’t be convinced this intrinsic value doesn’t exist. Elliott’s argument was also based on the idea of intrinsic value (probably the first clue that his arguments might not actually change the behavior of the mining industry). The art corollary he made basically boils down to this: if you bought a Vermeer painting and later found out that it wasn’t actually a Vermeer, you would find it less valuable, even if you weren’t able to tell the difference from the original yourself. Or, to take a more macabre angle on it: if you bought a sculpture that you loved, and later found out that someone had died to source the materials for it, that would likely change how you felt about it (I say this optimistically, knowing that people don’t feel differently about their smartphones and diamond wedding rings, even knowing the extractive ways in which their materials are sourced). Said another way: origin stories matter. Nature, as something built and curated by humans, does not have the same value as nature, undisturbed, or at least un-damaged and unmanaged.

In early 2022, news articles began circulating about farmers in Turkey using virtual reality (VR) on their livestock – putting VR headsets on their cooped up and caged cows to give them the impression that they were free range. With new attention on the metaverse, this seemed either like a new fresh hell or an innovative new use of technology, depending on who you asked. This isn’t actually a new idea though - farmers in Moscow were doing this as early as 2016. And if you choose milk production as your success metric, it appears to be working. Cows with access to nature, even if it’s virtual, are less stressed than those without, and cows with less stress produce more milk.

This is even less a new idea when you consider the fact that humans have been doing the same thing to ourselves for about as long as VR has existed, or that earlier iterations of the same concept long predate that: people have long enjoyed nature movies, and shown their domestic cats movies of birds and fish. We know that nature makes us feel good, that it’s good for our mental health. How much of it though? An encounter with a dangerous wild animal or mud up to your ankles would be enough to ruin the experience for most people, so there is such a thing as “too much” or “too authentic.” That line is different for each individual. Rebecca Solnit, in her book Orwell’s Roses, talks of being reminded by one of her students that not everyone finds agricultural vistas appealing, or indicative of some ideal: people who grew up working low-wage jobs in agriculture know too well the realities of what goes on within those vistas to find it peaceful. “You have to feel securely high to want to go low, urban to yearn for the rural, smooth to desire roughness, anxious about artificiality to seek this version of authenticity,” she writes.

The idea that all nature is good for all people is overly simplistic. But for all this reasoning about why and how much, I still can’t really articulate why nature matters so much, only that it does, to me. Chris J. Cuomo writes in her book Feminism and Ecological Communities that “a thing might be valued because it is the kind of thing that does not fit into systems of economic value, because its undisturbed presence contributes to the kind of world that is valued, or because its uniqueness, beauty, or complexity evokes humility and respect. In some instances, rational reasons elude us, and we simply find ourselves valuing someone or some thing that in no meaningful sense can be said to have use value for us.”

This feels the truest to me. There are so many reasons wild spaces matter: scientific, economic and otherwise, but few of them have proven sufficient to convince the powers-that-be that they’re worth preserving. Words have meaning, but they also, like a piece of land, can change over time and mean different things depending on the angle that we look at them from. A botanic garden or a landscape irrevocably changed by human commerce may not be authentic in the sense of “conforming to an original,” may not be novel in the sense of being self-sustaining, but it would be pedantic to assume that they couldn’t therefore make us feel something for the land, that we couldn’t find them original or striking, that these landscapes are incapable of providing us with a unique or novel experience. Origin stories do matter, but perhaps instead of deciding that the only origin story of value is the unblemished one, we could decide that knowing the origin story is itself the point. To know and understand the context of a place so that we can understand what we are seeing, understand how we fit into the ecological community, and how we can make decisions for the future. Let us decide well which services to ask for.

Cuomo, Chris J., Feminism and Ecological Communities: an Ethic of Flourishing, (Routledge, 1998)

Elliot, Robert. Faking Nature (Inquiry, 25, 81-93. 1982)

Flyn, Cal, Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape (William Collins, 2021)

Mackinnon, J.B., The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be (Random House Canada, 2013)

Merriam-Webster, Dictionary, Online 2022

Lowman, Meg, The Arbornaut: A Life Discovering the Eighth Continent in the Trees Above Us (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021)

Palmer, Margaret & Hondula, Kelly & Koch, Benjamin. (2014). Ecological Restoration of Streams and Rivers: Shifting Strategies and Shifting Goals. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics. 45. 247-269. 10.1146/annurev-ecolsys-120213-091935.

Solnit, Rebecca. Orwell’s Roses (Viking, 2021)