Encounters with the Thing Formerly Known as Nature

Ursula Heise

We used to call it nature: forests, lakes, foxes, butterflies, mosquitoes, dandelions. Soils and oceans. Seasonal cycles. Also floods and heat waves and the occasional hurricane. But no more: as Bill McKibben, the environmental writer and activist founder of 350.org, put it back in 1989, climate change implies the end of nature. Nature, McKibben argued, meant a realm separate from human agency, at least for the modern American society of the last two centuries. Anthropogenic climate change, by transforming even places where no human has yet set foot, even atmospheric processes and ocean depths, leaves no particle of the planet untouched and therefore puts it all under the sway of human action. Nature as we used to know it, as the other of human society, is no more.

The idea that true nature is only what has not been touched by humans has since come under serious attack as a distinctively American environmentalist bias. It has little traction in developing countries, where environmentalism often means local communities defending their own uses of nature, or in Europe, where untouched nature has been a scarce commodity for centuries. But the idea that humankind now faces a new and fundamentally changed natural world took shape in 2000, when the atmospheric scientist Paul Crutzen and the ecologist Eugene Stoermer proposed the notion of the “Anthropocene,” a new geological era distinct from the Holocene. Humans’ impact on the planet is now so pervasive that it will be visible even in the Earth’s geological strata, Crutzen and Stoermer suggested, and this justifies thinking of our time as a new and different planetary age.

Regardless of whether geologists will ultimately validate this hypothesis or not, it has resonated with environmentalist thinkers and writers eager to describe humans’ current uses of nature without invoking worn-out narratives of degradation, decline, and the end of this or that—whether it be places, species, or the natural world itself. Since the apocalyptic rhetoric of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb in the 1960s, environmentalism has become associated with visions of gloomy futures that tend to take a particular moment of the past as their arbitrary but idealized baseline, and that often induce political indifference rather than activism in those generations who see themselves robbed of a desirable future. What other, more forward-looking stories can we tell about our current encounters with a rapidly changing natural world? What narratives might acknowledge our human responsibilities without obsessing, anthropocentrically, about ourselves as either rampant destroyers or benevolent saviors of nature? How can we write about changes in nature without casting the future as merely a diminished version of the present? Two recent books of environmentalist nonfiction, Emma Marris’s Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World and Jon Mooallem’s Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America grapple with these questions, as does Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel.

Both Marris and Mooallem carefully and eloquently pull the rug out from under much established environmental wisdom. Rambunctious Garden delivers a book-length critique of the central role that wilderness has played in American conservation. Against the idea that only untouched nature is worth preserving, and that conservation should aim to restore a pristine ecological “baseline” located somewhere outside or before human intervention, Marris holds out a vision of hybrid ecologies that include native and nonnative species, novel ecosystems that emerge when humans have intervened in a place and then abandoned it, and designer ecosystems that are being reshaped in response to human needs and desires.

Her criticism of human-free nature as a yardstick for conservation is hardly new. Indian sociologist Ramachandra Guha launched a vigorous attack on it in 1989 in an essay that highlights how little this idea resonates in developing countries, where indigenous or local communities often struggle to safeguard uses of nature that have proven sustainable for millennia. The American historian William Cronon delivered another broadside against it in 1995 in his well-known essay “The Trouble with Wilderness,” which shows how Native American communities were displaced in order to create national parks in allegedly pristine locales. Other environmental historians, including Donald Worster and Richard White, and environmental literary critics, such as David Mazel, Michael Cohen, and Dana Phillips, have similarly pointed to the historical roots and ideological ballast that comes with the American veneration of the wild.

Kudzu, the "weed that ate the South." Flickr / Kitten Wants

So the basic thrust of Marris’s critique is not new, and her sometimes glib tone can be historically reductive, as when she characterizes the wilderness cult as “the Americanization of an essentially European Romanticism with less swooning and more shooting; less poetry and more adventure stories.” Nonetheless, Marris deserves credit for taking the debate about wilderness as the central environmentalist ideal into the public sphere more resolutely than her predecessors. That her book has been the subject of such contentious discussion over the last two years demonstrates that the critique of wilderness is only beginning to be accepted by the conservationist movement at large.

Marris’s emphasis on recent ecological science, which distinguishes her book from many of its predecessors, allows her to bring the logical leaps and inconsistencies in current conservationist thought into sharp focus. If wild nature as a touchstone has always been more a matter of fiction than of fact—indigenous peoples reshaped ecosystems through fire on a grand scale long before the modern age—it offers even less traction in the Anthropocene, with its ubiquitous human impacts. Take the conservationist preference for native species over introduced ones, for example, which has repeatedly led to sweeping and often quixotic efforts to extirpate “invasive” plants and animals. Marris admits that some introduced species cause lasting harm: kudzu, the “weed that ate the South”; the brown tree snake that has extinguished almost a dozen endemic bird species on Guam; domestic cats that wreak havoc on bird populations across several continents. But she emphasizes that these are in the minority: many exotic plants and trees that have flourished in American gardens for decades have become part of local ecosystems without major damage. For instance, the fast-growing trees that were planted on Rodrigues Island in the Indian Ocean helped native birds and bats avoid extinction. In many such cases, the very distinction between genetically similar native and introduced species leaves one scratching one’s head. Marris’s pithy bottom line: rather than fighting invasives, “learning to love exotic species,” as one of her chapter titles has it, is the order of the day.

Rather than looking nostalgically back to the nature of the past, Marris asks her readers to envision what nature they want for the future in light of ecology’s most recent insights.

Marris demonstrates her difficulties with conventional environmentalist thought even more incisively when she discusses current debates over “assisted migration,” the proposal to move species endangered by climate change in their old habitats to new ones that answer better to their physiological requirements. In her informal but admirably lucid and precise prose, Marris points out how this idea pits two conservationist ideas against each other: “the pristineness myth and the myth of a correct baseline for each area.” On one hand, if humans have disrupted untrammeled nature with their activities, they should restore and sustain it, even if it implies moving species. “But,” Marris continues, “if ecosystems have a correct baseline to which we must return … then we absolutely cannot move species from one area to another. To do so would violate the baseline and be tantamount to willfully creating invasive species.” That is, if old ideas offer no firm grounds for decision-making in the new context of climate change, they serve no better in the case of “novel ecosystems,” disturbed by humans and then abandoned to develop in their own ways. Such ecosystems often harbor a great diversity of species, but tend to be disdained by ecologists because the same highly successful exotic species appear in many places around the world, increasing local but diminishing global diversity. For the conventional ecologist, they signal a dangerous homogenization; for Marris and the maverick ecologists with whom she sympathizes, “novel ecosystems are less McDonald’s than fusion cuisine,” a new and complex form of nature worthy of being studied and appreciated in its own right.

More than mere critique, then, Rambunctious Garden holds out an affirmative vision of the future of nature in the Anthropocene—one of the most refreshing aspects of Marris’s book. Rather than looking nostalgically back to the nature of the past, Marris asks her readers to envision what nature they want for the future in light of ecology’s most recent insights. “We’ve forever altered the Earth, and so now we cannot abandon it to a random fate. It is our duty to manage it. Luckily, it can be a pleasant, even joyful task if we embrace it in the right spirit,” she concludes encouragingly. In this framework, though, it comes as a bit of a disappointment that her last chapter offers a laundry list of environmentalist goals that closely resemble conventional conservation strategies. In the end, Rambunctious Garden proposes rethinking such goals with a different conception of nature in mind, but it does not set radically new goals for the future of conservation.

Jon Mooallem, like Marris, focuses on the inconsistencies, dead ends, and sheer absurdities in contemporary conservation efforts. “Gradually, America’s management of its wild animals has evolved, or maybe devolved, into a surreal kind of performance art,” he claims, and continues: “We train condors not to perch on power lines. We slip plague vaccine to ferrets. We shoot barred owls to make room in the forest for spotted owls. We monitor pygmy rabbits with infrared cameras and military drones. We carry migrating salamanders across busy roads in our palms.” Everyone from high school kids and retirees to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Army Corps of Engineers participates willingly in elaborate trickeries and large-scale maneuvers meant to give endangered animals one last stab at survival. We expend enormous labor and capital to save polar bears, whose habitat is melting away and who are beginning to interbreed with northward-migrating grizzlies. We guide whooping cranes with planes over hundreds of miles of migration to summer habitats that may well be engulfed by rising seawater in the foreseeable future. Why?

Operation migration flyover. Ramos Keith / US Fish and Wildlife Service

In his search for an answer to this question, Mooallem elegantly revisits a good deal of the science that also pops up in Marris’s account, such as the complexities in dealing with introduced species or with ecosystems that thrive on disturbance. However, his real interest lies not in conservation science but in the people who engage in it and the stories they tell about that engagement. Mooallem does not approach the fate of endangered wildlife in the Anthropocene as an environmentalist with a reform agenda, like Marris, but as an anthropologist with an eye for the bizarre.

Wild Ones could take its place in a long list of books on endangered species that feature a scientist, journalist, or activist traveling around the world, talking to experts and local informants, visiting scenarios of species loss and reporting back to the reader who has stayed at home: Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine’s Last Chance To See (1992), David Quammen’s Song of the Dodo (1996), Diane Ackerman’s The Rarest of the Rare (1995), and Terry Glavin’s The Sixth Extinction (2007). This genre also includes books that focus on particular endangered species, such as Peter Matthiessen’s Tigers in the Snow (2000), Mark Jerome Walters’s Seeking the Sacred Raven (2006), and Tim Gallagher’s The Grail Bird (2005). Many of these books, in spite of their conservationist fervor, occasionally hint at an undercurrent of unease in the writers’ encounter with heroic efforts to pull species back from extinction. In Mooallem’s strangely lyrical and eloquent book, this unease takes center stage: Wild Ones is not a book about species conservation so much as an anatomy of the misgivings that accompany it today.

Mooallem finds that the collective resource of humans’ irresistible attraction to wildlife renews itself
even when the wildlife
itself doesn’t.

A gently intimated but gradually increasing sense of futility hovers over Mooallem’s descriptions of scientists and volunteers who devote years to saving a particular species. As Mooallem witnesses the carnival of ecotourism and celebrity events around the polar bears of Churchill, Manitoba, for example, scientists and conservationists tell him again and again that the polar bear is the “canary in the coal mine,” signaling the turmoils of climate change to come. He delivers a sharp-eyed cultural history of the rise of the polar bear as “a shining white symbol of the green movement,” as one news reporter put it, and, in Mooallem’s own words, as “a prop to underscore the problem of climate change.” But what difference does this media attention make? The scientists and tourists who come to see the bears are already persuaded of the realities of climate change, while the local residents with whom Mooallem spends time remain unconvinced that the warmer temperatures are a sign of anything more than a natural cycle. The emergency airlift of a polar bear that Mooallem describes resembles nothing so much as the airborne arrival of a gigantic statue of Jesus in Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita: a parody of a miracle that in the end achieves little.

As he tracks successive generations of entomologists who try to save Lange’s metalmark butterfly in California or the volunteers who guide migrating whooping cranes in light aircraft, Mooallem finds that the collective resource of humans’ irresistible attraction to wildlife renews itself even when the wildlife itself doesn’t. It is this resource that Mooallem, in his book’s frame story, wants to pass on to his young daughter Isla, whose generation will, he fears, no longer be able to see a good deal of the biodiversity that his witnessed. No firm conclusion, he confesses, emerges from the stories Americans tell about wildlife, which are in his view ultimately “stories that we use … to tell about ourselves. The best of us are cursed with caring, with a bungling and undying determination to protect whatever looks like beauty, even if our vision is blurry.” This is no doubt supposed to be the “weirdly reassuring” part of Mooallem’s book, yet it comes across as strangely conventional and sentimental at the end of a journey through conservation’s fascinating ironies, absurdities, and futilities. That some species have “a key that just unlocks the goodness of people,” as one of Mooallem’s informants puts it, is not particularly uplifting except for humans. For readers also concerned about animals, this original and beautifully written book in the end tumbles back into quite familiar modes of elegy, nostalgia, and mourning for nonhumans and what Mooallem portrays as doomed efforts to save them.

Endangered species may unlock goodness in people; in writers, they unlock a lyricism that often persuades by its strangeness as much as its beauty. This kind of lyricism also unfolds in the best moments of Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, Flight Behavior. Kingsolver has long held celebrity status among environmentalists for writing about care for the land, sustainable agriculture, and locavorism in works that link realistic ecological detail to compelling fictional characters and plots. But some of her novels, short stories, and autobiographical writings have been marred by a sentimental investment in local and familial bonds and by a tendency toward a didacticism, both of which are particularly palpable in Animal Dreams (1990), Prodigal Summer (2000), and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (2007).

It is refreshing to see Flight Behavior return to something like the complexity of The Poisonwood Bible (1998), one of Kingsolver’s most powerful novels. The plot of Flight Behavior is launched by a swarm of monarch butterflies that land in the Appalachian Mountains near Feathertown, Tennessee, far away from their usual routes of seasonal migration between the United States and Mexico. The clusters of orange and black insects are first spotted in the forest by a young married woman, Dellarobia Turnbow, on her way to an adulterous rendezvous. But she does not, in this first encounter, recognize them as anything other than a surreal forest fire without sound, a latter-day burning bush that must be a divine signal: “Unearthly beauty had appeared to her, a vision of glory to stop her in the road. For her alone these orange boughs lifted, these long shadows became a brightness rising. It looked like the inside of joy, if a person could see that. A valley of lights, an ethereal wind. It had to mean something.” What would be absurdly surreal in Mooallem’s book is divinely so in Kingsolver’s.

The novel proceeds to unfold the spectrum of possible meanings the butterflies’ arrival might have. Most immediately, the monarchs make Dellarobia break off her incipient adulterous relationship and return, at least temporarily, to her unsatisfactory marriage with her husband Cub and her two young children. The unusual appearance of the “King Billies,” as the monarchs are called in the region, is considered a sign from God by Feathertown churchgoers and turns the red-haired Dellarobia into a minor celebrity, the “Butterfly Venus.” It also prevents her parents-in-law from logging the forest to liquidate debt on their farm equipment. Instead, they open the area to wealthy ecotourists whose affluence clashes oddly with the surrounding rural poverty. The monarchs also bring a team of scientists to the community to investigate. Ovid Byron, a charismatic African American biologist from the Virgin Islands, gradually opens Dellarobia’s mind to science and to the implications of climate change, whose reality he desperately seeks to drive home to local residents and media. Like the polar bears in Mooallem’s Wild Ones, it turns out, the monarch butterflies are harbingers of the changing ecologies that climate change will bring, but also of momentous changes in Dellarobia’s own life.

Monarch butterflies roosting. Flickr / Jane Kirkland

Flight Behavior leaves little room for the sentimentality about places of origin and families that was so prominent in Animal Dreams. Dellarobia’s environment is portrayed as an oppressive trap: from her shotgun marriage to a likeable but unintelligent husband and the tyranny of her in-laws to her lack of education and decent job prospects, it is clear that everything in Dellarobia’s life up until her encounter with the monarchs has conspired to stunt her intelligence and ambition. If this portrayal veers close to cliché, Kingsolver makes up for it with complex back stories for several major characters: the scientist Ovid Byron and his wife, the charismatic preacher Bobby Ogle, Dellarobia’s friend Dovey Causey, and her despotic mother-in-law, Hester Turnbow.

Kingsolver’s novel is most persuasive when it imagines the ambiguities that arise as the Feathertown community faces the new ecology of climate change and the scientists who investigate it. As a participant in the scientific team’s fieldwork of counting and classifying the butterflies, Dellarobia reveals to the college students and their professor her shocking lack of high-school science education: science classes were taught, or rather forestalled, by the school’s sports coach. But she also resists the scientists when they dismiss the locals for limiting themselves to local talk shows, pointing out that the scientists never broaden their horizons by listening to such programs: both communities believe they already know what the other side will say. Byron himself fails miserably if somewhat comically in his attempt to explain climate change during an interview with a local TV station, but his angry tirade goes viral on the Internet, bringing regional and national attention to the monarchs’ off-course migration. His outburst does nothing to change the minds of Feathertown residents, however, who blithely plan to exploit the monarchs for ecotourism again the following year, with no understanding of how temporary a phenomenon they might be witnessing.

As Dellarobia begins to understand the connections between butterfly migration and climate change, she struggles to reconcile beauty with calamity. “If the butterflies were refugees of a horrible misfortune, there could be no beauty in them,” she muses. And, in more acute agony: “Why did the one rare, spectacular thing in her life have to be a sickness of nature?” Through the clash between the cultural meanings of the butterflies’ arrival—their aesthetic appeal, their suggestion of divine presence, their power to alter the course of human lives—and its ecological meanings—species loss, climate change—Kingsolver signals how conventional ways of understanding nature fall short in the Anthropocene.

Kingsolver compellingly highlights the gaps between old stories about nature and new ecological materialities.

So do some more recent attitudes toward nature: Flight Behavior scathingly highlights how certain kinds of contemporary “hipster” environmentalism fail to engage with poverty. After meeting some of the ecotourists, Dellarobia thinks sadly how “[t]hese people had everything. Education, good looks, boots whose price tag equaled her husband’s last paycheck. Now the butterflies were theirs too.” And in one of the novel’s most searingly satirical scenes, an environmental activist visits the Turnbow house with a “sustainability pledge” that is meant to encourage people to adopt more ecologically friendly behaviors. He becomes increasingly flustered as Dellarobia makes him realize that slogans like “reduce, reuse, recycle” simply describe what poor people already do and would love to leave behind, while pledges such as flying less or investing in socially responsible funds mean nothing to those who live from paycheck to paycheck and have never set foot in an airport.

Kingsolver compellingly highlights the gaps between old stories about nature and new ecological materialities, exploring social meanings rather than the scientific and symbolic ones on which Marris and Mooallem, respectively, focus. But like them, she does not ultimately offer a new narrative template for the Anthropocene: Flight Behavior is a bildungsroman that ends with Dellarobia Turnbow heading to college to study science and beginning a new life, but Kingsolver does not ask the probing questions of ecological science that Marris and Mooallem pose. Though it lacks the broad, affirmative vision of Rambunctious Garden and the narrative subtlety of Wild Ones, Flight Behavior nevertheless shares with them the difficult and necessary work of rethinking the meaning of conservation in a natural world irrevocably transformed by humans.