Monday, May 20, 2013
Follow the link to an article from last week that has useful links to some recent work by geographers [Go Team!] on humanized landscapes back 5000 years. All of this scholarship is forcing a revision of ideas.
"New research shows that humans have been transforming the earth and its ecosystems for millenniums — far longer than previously believed. These findings call into question our notions about what is unspoiled nature and what should be preserved."
Link Fred Pearce article
Friday, May 17, 2013
Yesterday I participated in a live web event with Orion Magazine discussing urban ecology and urban nature.
The podcast should be available here orion magazine podcast
Orion Magazine began in 1982, and I first began reading it in my last year of college in 1984. By far, it is the most interesting and important environmental magazine for its focus on the nature/culture divide and its support by the best American nature writers. Go subscribe today!
The panel for the podcast consisted of academic ecologists from Chicago and Montreal...and me. I had never done this kind of "talk in a barrel" where we are all on a conference call to chat. Awkward and we mostly talked about ecology and the discipline of ecology rather than nature, but it is hard to do much in an hour. I was taken by the contrast between my experience in Texas and their northern concerns - Chicago Wilderness and Montreal's buried streams, and their grounding in academia and community with my odd life as a public utility/city government/semi-academic.
So I am chewing on some of the contrasts and some of the realizations that emerged as I reflect on this experience. I will be posting separate reflections on these over the next week.
But today my strongest reaction is how much work there is to do on reassessing our expectations of urban nature [and all nature] around fundamental concepts nature and ecology. And how much work we need to do in environmental history of the Americas.
Tuesday, May 07, 2013
“… the reference point is not an original condition of a natural landscape, but rather a condition defined based on the current site potential and the greatest possible degree of self-regulation. From this perspective, therefore, the natural capacity for process is the central point, not a particular, retrospectively determined and often idealized, picture of nature.” [Ingo Kowarik, Urban Wild Woodlands 2005]
The ecological setting for wasteland habitat begins with a presettlement ecosystem. In America, this setting is associated with the myth of wilderness as first nature. Wilderness is that pristine pre-Columbian place that continues be the standard of American nature despite the work of geographers, historians, and ecologists who have established the role of Native Americans in transforming the ecology of America. For thousands of years, Native Americans had been busy manipulating and cultivating wilderness in ways that European American eyes failed to see, or chose not to acknowledge. Now we reify native species as the embodiment of the original moment before our own arrival, a misapprehension bound up in the retrospective discourse of conservation biology and restoration ecology and then deployed as the focus of nature protection in America.
The issue of what is native or alien to a place is a question of biogeography which is transformed into scientific programs of conservation biology and restoration ecology. Here in the wastelands, the question of native species and first nature arises most sharply when a patch of remnant habitat is found. In the wastelands, these remnants are promoted as highly prized reminders of the past; benchmarks for restoration; and “shrines” for nature enthusiasts. They are the standards used to judge the rest of wasteland nature and to label it as degraded habitat. The quest for these remnants is one aspect of engagement with wastelands, but one where only remnant shreds and scraps are valued. Habitat in urban waste space as a whole is devalued when compared to the few sites with remnant first nature. Moreover, this remnant first nature is the catalyst for restoration projects that seek to transform wastelands.
When no remnants are found, this ecological meddling in the margins can take the form of claiming them for the functional landscapes of second nature, which entails the transformation of the ecological community in wastelands for social purposes. The sports fields and lawns of urban pastoral parkland typically consist of non-native turf grasses. The reclamation of vacant lots into community gardens and urban farms replaces wasteland weeds with cultivated plants, most of which ironically are non-native species. Vegetation managed as functional infrastructure in flood plains or along waterways also consists of native and non-native vegetation. Thus, the wastelands disappear as we turn them into landscapes of second nature.
The German urban ecologist, Ingo Kowarik, uses the iterative concept of nature to argue for appreciation of wasteland habitats. The focus of his research is woodlands that grow without human help in urban industrial waste spaces. He argues that these “urban industrial woodlands” must be recognized as a distinct kind of ecological community. The woodlands that have grown in the derelict iron and steel foundries and mining areas in the Ruhr valley are well studied German examples. They, also, have been extensively studied in old railyards, abandoned railways, and other vacant lands in Berlin. If these woodlands are compared to original mature woodlands outside of the city, they are classified as degraded woodlands. Kowarik argues that this comparison amounts to judging them with a retrospective standard of nature based on past conditions. He characterizes this standard as “a particular, retrospectively determined and often idealized, picture of nature.” This picture of nature is usually a first nature image of woodland. He argues for a “contemporaneous” approach to evaluating these urban woodlands which does not value them based on a retrospective judgment about the anthropogenic origin of the site. Additionally, they should be evaluated with a “prospective” approach which assesses their potential for capacity to grow without the intervention of humans. Both their self-generation and successful growth independent of human cultivation indicate their ecological functionality from the perspective of ecosystem process.
Based on these ecological attributes, Kowarik argues that urban industrial woodlands have more similarities to first nature woodland, to which they are usually negatively compared, than to cultivated, intensively managed forests or parkland/garden trees. He suggests a revision of the iterative classification of nature where urban industrial woodlands are recognized as a fourth nature following on traditional first and second nature and including the Renaissance idea of gardens as third nature. Fourth nature “encompasses the natural development that occurs independently on typical urban industrial sites, without horticultural planning or design,” which emerges as a kind of “new wilderness.” One goal of his proposal is to shift the focus of urban nature conservation planning from particular sites which manifest first nature remnants or pastoral attributes to significant examples of each of the four types of nature. A second goal is more controversial, especially in America, since he asserts a “fundamental equivalence of values” between these four kinds of nature which is a direct challenge to the primacy of wilderness,
“The second goal is to convey, through a simple distinction between natures of the first, second, third and fourth kind, that a fundamental equivalence of values exists among the four different nature types. The original nature, which is identified as the “correct” nature from a scientific perspective through the application of the retrospective perspective of naturalness…is therefore not automatically more valuable than the other manifestations of nature.” [Urban Wild Woodlands 2005]
Kowarik creates this new classification to overcome the prejudice that, even in Germany, sets first nature or preferred cultural landscapes as the correct nature to conserve. This sanctioning of original nature within conservation biology is based on a prejudice for wilderness or traditional cultural landscapes. He is not alone in making this criticism of conservation biology, but his focus on urban nature conservation is relevant to assessing the value of marginal nature.
Even though Kowarik is not arguing that first and fourth nature are the same ecological communities, his appeal to functionality and ecosystem processes undermines the dominance of first nature as the sole standard of appropriate nature. This socioecological revision contrasts sharply with the strong argument for pristine nature that we find in American environmental ethicists. For example, Eric Katz argues that the intervention of human intentionality at any point undoes the authenticity of the natural, turns a once natural place into an artifact. [Nature as Subject: Human Obligation and Natural Community. 1997] This absolutist belief in the authenticity of natural value relies on the strict divide between the natural and the human, with pristine nature as the only ground for natural value. Appeals to functionality also surfaced in debates between Katz and restoration ecologists. In this context, the debate was about the status of restored habitats compared to authentic first nature. Katz argued against functionality of an ecosystem as an equivalent value to authenticity because it generates the “substitution problem,”
“As long as our only concern is the ecological function of the system, then we may simply substitute more ecologically efficient components – as long as we have sufficient knowledge. This criterion eliminates any direct argument for the preservation of natural entities within the system. As long as ecological function is maintained, individuals may be replaced or destroyed.” [In Gobster and Hull, Restoring Nature. 2000]
Katz’s fear is that there then is no end to substitution, and so all of first nature could be replaced by second nature as long as it functioned sufficiently well. “Nature itself – a nature unmodified by human intention, knowledge, technology, and power – will lose its value.” Between Katz and Kowarik is a divide that marks one of the key differences between American and European perceptions of nature. Kowarik is open to including in his definition of first nature areas that still have a strong connection to pristine ecosystems despite human impacts. This acceptance of some human involvement with habitats considered pristine acknowledges the reality of human habitation in ancient European natural landscapes. For Katz, this openness is the betrayal of the authenticity of pristine nature. Katz would object to the very notion of “new wilderness” since this wasteland habitat is just another human artifact. This same kind of reasoning influenced McKibben who announced the end of nature since humans have so modified the natural processes of the entire planet.
The American idea of nature as pristine wilderness, also, generates another problem since, once altered, nature can never recover its pristine status. From Katz’s perspective, there is no possibility of a new wilderness. American first nature is an object that can only be blemished and degraded, and it is not a resistant (or resilient) subject. The agency of nature emerges here again as a question since there is nothing that nature can do to recover its honor or its authenticity once human intervention sullies it. In contrast, Kowarik begins his ecological engagement with nature (urban or otherwise) from an analysis of its agency and its natural process. All four kinds of nature in Kowarik’s scheme are mixtures of nonhuman and human agency with fourth nature being a unique response of nonhuman agency to human intervention and neglect. A defining characteristic of marginal nature is this opportunistic agency, this resistant pushing back against human intentions and transgressive infiltration of urban space through the wastelands. As a coproduction, marginal nature opens new possibilities for nature and human society to interact through commingling intentions.
Saturday, March 16, 2013
Our local paper runs a short piece about red-tails perched along highways, but without a picture of a perched bird. Just this one of rehab birds. Red-tails have fixed territories along roads and at highway intersections (we've watched one red-tail using the 183 and 969 interchange for 6 years now). Interesting how the media picks up on these changes, but then shallowly brushes passed the deeper change unfolding as nonhumans respond to new opportunities and a humanized landscape. But as these stories accumulate the public constructs a new context for understanding nonhumans in the city. Read the story here HighwayHunters
Wednesday, March 13, 2013
The Jardin de la Connaissance was established in June 2010. Since then, the garden has been interacting with the forest. The book structures have decayed in the natural setting, but have also provided various micro-environments for a range of local creatures.
Seedlings and insects have activated the walls, carpets and benches. Mushrooms - those cultivated and those who have come by themselves - have made the garden their home. Many of the originally bright colours of the books have faded. Culture is fading back into nature.
the books are now sprouting enormous orange mushrooms, and this year the designers introduced moss.More at
Friday, February 22, 2013
The visit starts on an icy January morning, overlooking Cours de Vincennes in the 12th arrondissement of Paris. The rails are coated in frost. We step gingerly out onto the iron bridge that spans the busy traffic, then enter an area that has run wild. The noise of the city is suddenly dulled. We are exploring the Petite Ceinture (which translates as "little belt"), a 32km circular rail link round Paris – part elevated, part in cuttings or underground – inside the Périphérique ring road.
Buildings rise on either side of the old railway, but sufficiently far away to give a real sense of space. The track runs through an abandoned station, covered in colourful graffiti. Beyond the vegetation we glimpse blocks of flats with spacious balconies, conjuring up an odd impression of having slipped behind the scenery.
So what should Paris do with this secret hideaway? Leave it to run wild, or turn it into a park? The city council has launched a consultation process involving residents and neighbourhood groups, the aim being to take a decision at the end of the year. The topic has stirred a lively response: train enthusiasts are keen to reinstate the service; nature enthusiasts want to turn the track into a wildlife reserve; and sport lovers sees the route as a gift for exercising.
More at the Guardian website http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/feb/22/paris-disused-railway-green-space
Wednesday, January 16, 2013
The Round River: Myth, Meaning, and Rivers
Austin Water Center for Environmental Research Monthly Lunchtime Lecture
Jan 30 Wednesday – NOON to 1pm AT CITY HALL, Austin, Texas
Boards and Commissions Room 1101
The 2013 Lunchtime Lectures will explore the geography of rivers. The metaphor of the “round river” which flows back into itself provides the structure of the lectures. We begin with the mythical, metaphorical river which runs so deeply in human culture and specifically in American culture. Humans have ancient and complex cultural relationships to rivers revealing the deep significance rivers have for the human psyche. The river as a symbol of Being can be found throughout mythology, and, from the Pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, we supposedly learned that one cannot step in the same river twice.