An old environmental debate in the USA from the 1960s and 1970s involved the “purity” of nature and its preservation. Some of this debate became encapsulated in America’s 1964 Wilderness Act, followed by the 1975 Eastern Wilderness Act. The latter bill mainly included acreage in and near the Appalachian Mountain chain, some of which loggers had stripped during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some wilderness purists objected to the 1975 bill, fearing it would foster a “grow your own wilderness” mentality. But the purists were mistaken on several levels, and reflected the Edenic mindset that characterizes so much American environmental thought. Remember, humans are the “despoilers” of nature in the Edenic mindset.
First, there is no pure “wilderness” anywhere in the world. Global air quality alone has changed radically since the onset of the industrial age, especially from the mid-1800s-on. As any silviculturist will tell you, regular exposure to polluted air generally compromises tree health (there are exceptions to the rule among tree species), and can even be a contributing factor in forest death, especially when air pollution becomes part of a vicious cycle involving susceptibility to insect infestation. Under these compromised conditions, often all it takes is a periodic drought to trigger massive tree death.
Wildfire is another factor that regularly violates any notion of wilderness preserved in a pure sense. Lightning causes only around 10% of wildfires in the United States; the rest are anthropogenic in one fashion or another, and wildfires burning in non-wilderness areas easily cross over into the preserved territory. The U.S. Forest Service has a “let burn” policy regarding wildfires in their wilderness areas, in appreciation of the fire ecology that belatedly came to the scientific forefront after the well-intentioned (but highly mistaken) Smokey the Bear era of wildfire suppression. But those anthropogenic wildfires are another “outside” ecological force in wilderness areas.
Yet another non-pure factor involves the spreading of seeds. Birds, humans, dogs, horses, and other animals can and do carry “non-native” plant seeds into wilderness areas. Think of a bird like the Eastern Barred Owl, now competing with the Northern Spotted Owl in the Pacific Northwest. The Eastern Barred Owl somehow migrated on its own across the continent, but did so over habitats radically modified by humans. The Eastern Barred Owl does not distinguish wilderness from non-wilderness.
Think of how humans have eradicated or diminished large predators like mountain lions and grizzly bears. The California Golden Bear is extinct, and wolves disappeared from most western places until human stewards began curating their return. All of this human behavior invariably affects and influences entire habitats surrounding wilderness as well as wilderness areas themselves. There is no biospheric dome demarcating wilderness from the non-wilderness world.
In any case, the “pure” versus “non-pure” environmental debate was and is obviously a false dichotomy. Instead, all environments exist on a continuum involving the influence and interaction of a great many factors. True, the human factor is profound, given the powerful nature of our species. Yet we exercise and have exercised that power in many different ways, from rapacious and irresponsible resource exploitation, to bucolic cultivation according to our own agrarian values, to ugly and beautiful cities accommodating highly varied arrays of non-human life.
I grew up in the post-Silent Spring era of environmental concern, so even as a child I heard adults discuss the doomsday predictions of the day, including the “tragedy of the commons,” the “population bomb,” and how (if we were not careful) DDT was supposedly going to render that silent spring season that Rachel Carson warned about, void of insect noise and birdsong. But in my own life, this 1960s and 1970s milieu of dire environmental predictions also immediately included the idea of nature “taking back” landscapes that humans had markedly altered. I think I know exactly when and where this began for me.
Just before I turned eleven, my father and I pulled over on a four-lane highway to walk on the remnants of its two-lane predecessor that curved up a mountain. The earlier two-lane road was derived from an even earlier stagecoach route, and the stagecoach route from prehistoric footpaths. The footpaths had followed animal paths. All of these earlier routes curved their way up the mountain in the familiar “switchback” manner that allows for an easier grade to accommodate four and two-legged animals. The new four-lane highway ran straight up the slope and reflected a high horse-power internal combustion era.
We were fascinated by those old highway curve remnants. Plenty of old, rusting, galvanized guardrail remained. There were even a few traces of white paint that had marked the highway’s edge. Tellingly, those asphalt edges were already crumbling.
“We ought to take a sledgehammer, pick, and shovel and plant a tree in the middle of this,” my father said, or words to that effect. I liked that idea very much and never forgot it. But eventually I also came to appreciate that — human-created holes for trees or not — this highway would disappear back into “nature” one day.
As I wrote previously, nature is relentless in that its innumerable species struggle to survive, compete, and reproduce — human habitats notwithstanding. Human civilization keeps certain species at bay or in check, but “nature” is ever waiting to move in. Nature, in fact, never leaves in the first place. Cities merely reflect an urban ecology that (for decades) has attracted a number of specialists focusing on landscape design, urban forestry, urban biology, pollution mitigation, and other environmental topics.
Human demographic shifts and human out-migrations create possibilities for nature. For example, currently, former residential neighborhoods in Detroit and other Rust Belt cities are “reverting” to nature due to massive human population losses, sometimes in excess of 50% of their one-time peak during the 1950s and 1960s. We also find massive out-migration in the Appalachian coalfields due to the collapse of the mining economy. A different sort of out-migration characterizes the rural mid-continent, where more efficient and technologically sophisticated agriculture continues a trend that began with the industrial revolution: i.e., fewer people producing more food.
The possibilities for nature in these places are exciting! Humans can leave them alone and let “nature take its course,” or they can deliberately foster certain habitats. For example, with human out-migration from the rural inner continent, old ingenious ideas like the “buffalo commons” (with its concomitant tall and short grass prairie restored) begin to seem more and more viable. If federal agricultural policy stopped subsidizing grain and grass crops where there is little economic or geographical justification for them, even more bison habitat would be available.
Abandoned urban environments can pose serious challenges, especially “brownfields” involving toxic wastes. More than twenty years ago, environmental engineer Allan Freeze offered a sophisticated catalogue of how to deal with such problems, depending upon specific circumstances and contaminates. Among my favorites are bioremediation and phytoremediation, in which humans plant certain grasses, shrubs, or trees that absorb toxic chemicals and neutralize them through their own natural metabolism. Amazing! But not only is nature amazing, so too are the scientists who have been discovering how these metabolic chemical alterations occur.
Responsible environmental stewardship is full of possibilities! What a privilege it is to be able to “help nature along” a little bit in fixing some of our own past mistakes. But it is also fun to visit places where human abandonment has allowed all sorts of flora and fauna to move in and begin to thrive.
Copyright © 2022 Will Sarvis. All rights reserved.
REFERENCES AND SUGGESTED READING
Allan R. Freeze, The Environmental Pendulum: A Quest for the Truth about Toxic Chemicals, Human Health, and Environmental Protection (Berkeley: University of California Pr., 2000).
Nicholas D. Kristof, “Make Way for Buffalo,” New York Times (Oct. 29, 2003).
Deirdre Lockwood, “Trees With a Probiotic Boost Clean Up a Carcinogen,” Chemical and Engineering News (Sept. 7, 2017).
Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind, 4th ed. (1967; New Haven: Yale University Pr., 2001) [must-read, old classic]
Elizabeth Pilon-Smits, “Phytoremediation,” Annual Review of Plant Biology 56 (2005), 17.
Deborah Epstein Popper and Frank J. Popper, “The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust,” Planning Magazine (Dec. 1987), 12–18.
Stephen J. Pyne, Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire (Princeton University Pr., 1982), 74–75, 143–45.
M.H. Saier, Jr. and J.T. Trevors, “Phytoremediation,” Water, Air, and Soil Pollution, Supplement 1 (2010), S62.