Restoring the future
Ecological restoration may be our last best hope for a sustainable future, according to the author, in an account of how he came to write ‘Our Once and Future Planet: Restoring the World in the Climate Change Century’, his new book on this radical conservation strategy
Slash and burn: in the world of ecological restoration, prairies are burned to make them flourish. Photograph courtesy of Sergei Smirenski/CUP
Cut to shreds: Ballynafagh bog, in Co Kildare, most of which has been stripped and which is in danger of disappearing. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
We are standing in Rochester Cemetery, in Iowa, but we are not being invited to look at its gravestones. We are here to look between them, for new life – or, rather, for living traces of an ancient and almost extinct world. You could say that we are looking for the past in the present, and for clues towards possible ecological futures. But I haven’t even begun to grasp what any of that means. Not yet.
Two local environmentalists are poking around between the graves, trying to find plants with lyrical names such as rattlesnake master, pale purple coneflower and rough blazing star. Cemeteries, along with railway cuttings, are the last refuges of the once-abundant flora of the tall-grass prairie. The intensive agriculture practised by settlers in Iowa, the “most altered state in the US”, has come close to erasing this ecosystem in less than two centuries.
It is late autumn, and most of the plants can only show us seed heads, at best. Not very lyrical, and hardly thrilling to the uninitiated or uninterested. Some of our group wander off to decipher inscriptions on worn tombstones or to chat about other things.
The international writing programme at the University of Iowa in 2003 was a melting pot of ingredients from around the world. We bubbled together happily enough but retained distinctive flavours: poets from Vietnam and Mongolia, a novelist from Chile, a Polish philosopher and a Chinese screenwriter.
Not all of us shared the passion for environmental writing that had driven the programme director, the poet Christopher Merrill, to organise this prairie weekend. But two of us did, at least. Gregory Norminton, a young English novelist, greeted me most mornings, over coffee at the hotel, with baleful comments about the latest ecological folly as exposed on the pages of the New York Times. He saw very little hope for our overcrowded and degraded planet, and he felt its sickness in his bones, in his gut and in his heart. I tried to resist his pessimism but did not know enough to offer a more positive reading of the world.
Norminton was up to speed on these things, and I was not. He grasped basic ecological concepts and could discuss debates in the environmental movement with some fluency. He knew his trees, even in the US, and I did not, though I probably had the edge on him as a birder. But that does not say much for either of our skills in that department.
Nevertheless, I had been hoping that birds would provide the theme for my next book, though from a human rather than an ecological perspective. I had an idea about exploring the traces left on our cultures by charismatic migrating birds, such as cranes, eagles and swallows, from cave paintings to popular music. Even this was a very new field for me. I had been invited into the Iowa programme on the back of my first book, an account of terrorism and state terrorism in the Basque Country. Rather weary of writing about people who kill each other, I was looking to natural history for a more congenial subject.
The migration-and-culture project had led me on a wonderful journey, following cranes on their annual journey from the cork oak savannahs of Extremadura, Spain’s most African landscape, to the melting snows of a Swedish spring. And it would soon lead me to the International Crane Foundation, not far from Iowa, in Baraboo, Wisconsin. But by then I had abandoned that book and found the seeds of a new one.
The night after our visit to the cemetery we were all invited to participate in a strange little ritual. It seemed the antithesis of anything environmentally healthy. There was an acrid smell of petrol in the air, and soon the pungent stench of damp, scorched vegetation. A rank patch of motley plants, perhaps 500 sq m, and already collapsing before the advance of winter, was marked out by a firebreak.