Just outside of Madison, Wisconsin, is a wild-looking landscape where towering 8-foot stands of bluestem and Indian grasses stretch as far as the eye can see.
It looks like this land has been undisturbed for thousands of years but, in fact, these 70 acres were only returned to their wild state in the 1930s, having been farmed for about 100 years before that. Now this effort in ecological restoration, the oldest of its kind in the world, is part of the University of Wisconsin’s Arboretum.
A restored ecosystem is one that was once lost to agriculture or development and is now in the process of being recovered or recreated. The Society for Ecological Restoration defines restoration as “the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged or destroyed.” A related concept is known as ‘rewilding’ – a form of conservation that aims to restore and protect natural processes and wilderness areas for the purpose of reintroducing or protecting certain species.
With climate change and population growth putting increasing pressure on natural habitats, these ideas are taking hold around the world – from the forests of the southeastern United States to Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park to Australia’s Clarence Valley. This growth has spawned an ecological restoration industry estimated to be worth upwards of $20 billion in the United States alone, according to a 2015 analysis.
In 1935, when hundreds of Civilian Conservation Corps workers were hired by the government to collect seeds and transplant prairie sod at the former farm in Madison, Wisconsin, what they were doing did not yet have a name. The term ecological restoration was coined over 40 years later by William Jordan, who was hired in 1977 to do public outreach for the Arboretum.
“Restoration wasn’t on the agenda in environment circles of the day,” he says. “It wasn’t part of the conversation. I had to explain what it was about,” says Jordan, who now directs the New Academy for Nature and Culture in Woodstock, Illinois.
He also had to explain why it was important. “The prairie,” he says, “was ecologically and economically obsolete.”
To help people understand, Jordan explained that the point of restoration was not so that people could start living like the Sioux Indians again. Instead, he sees value in four distinct ways, resulting in:
- a ‘product’, in the form of a restored ecosystem that provides a habitat for native species;
- a ‘process’, which offers opportunities to learn about the ecosystem while restoring it;
- an ‘experience’ that recapitulates our relationship with the environment;
- and a ‘performance,’ whereby a restored landscape can be presented much like a work of art in a museum.
Central to Jordan’s argument is the idea of existential shame. While most environmentalism is deeply sentimental – typified by Disney movies such as ‘The Lion King’ – he posits that our relationship with nature is actually dependent in a way that makes us aware of, and therefore shamed by, our limitations. Humans, he says, are limited and mortal creatures who must appropriate and annihilate vital material in the form of plants and animals in order to survive.
Simply put, “we heterotrophs all live by eating each other.”
He offers ecological restoration as a context in which to establish a morally and psychologically productive relationship with nature. “Human beings famously experience themselves as a part of and apart from their environment,” he explains. Religion, the arts and even science have long attempted to address these two, somewhat conflicting, ideas.
Even though a restored environment may be impractical and costly to maintain, Jordan says restoring it to a condition prior to human intervention requires us to detach from the ecosystem and be studiously indifferent to our own interests.
He calls this ‘eco-centric’ restoration, or restoration of systems for their own sake. “It’s not about us,” he says, “but about the ecosystem,” even if that means creating an environment replete with unappealing mosquitoes, rattlesnakes and poison ivy.
Jordan accepts that compromises must be made for the sake of practicality. In his 2011 book, ‘Making Nature Whole,’ he cites the example of earthworms, which were completely destroyed in the Midwest during the last glacial period. European anglers reintroduced them as bait and now, he says, “they are all over the place and have a profound [positive] effect on the ecology.”
It would be impossible and impractical to get rid of earthworms for the sake of eco-centric restoration, but Jordan argues in his book that it might be of great value to attempt to create, “a worm-free acre somewhere in each Midwestern state – interesting to ecologists, certainly, but also as a performance of sorts, evoking reflection on ecological change, its consequences, and our role in bringing it about.”
Ultimately Jordan concedes that restoration is not an effective strategy for managing the planet, but rather for understanding our place in and influence on it.
“We can’t bring back the dinosaurs,” he laughs. “Not even Steven Spielberg can do that.”
Portions of this article originally appeared in Wilder Magazine.