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
Would we like, our hosts Mark and Val Müller asked us, to help burn their prairie? We were standing on land that had been farmed for many decades, its natural diversity reduced to a single annual corn crop. Several years earlier the Müllers had cleared out the corn, ploughed it one last time and sowed native plant seeds, gathered locally from remnant prairie patches such as Rochester Cemetery. But a prairie community needs the alchemy of periodic fire if it is to flourish – hence the unusual invitation. Norminton was the first to jump in, wielding a drip torch through the flickering shadows. It had rained during the week, however, and the expected conflagration was denied us.
That was my introduction to the counterintuitive world of ecological restoration, where you burn a prairie to make it flourish, slaughter cute and furry mammals to save indigenous birds, and poison healthy trees to bring back native forests.
Working through those difficult issues would come later, however. For that night, despite the anticlimax with the prairie burn, Norminton and I were just fascinated by the notion that a prairie could be “restored” at all; that “natural” status could be returned to land claimed and cleared for human use. Like many people, we had grown up with the idea that if we wanted to save the natural world we had to preserve it from any human intervention.
The idea that humans could participate in nature to our mutual benefit, that we could be the agents of recovery of degraded ecosystems, was, we both dared to think, rather inspiring.
“I wonder if this kind of thing is happening in other places?” Norminton reflected aloud. “And if it is, wouldn’t it make an interesting book to describe projects like this for general readers?”
My heart leaped and sank in the same instant. I suddenly knew that this was the book I wanted to write – but, damn it, my new English friend had come up with it first. One is supposed to be ethical about these things.
I kept my frustration to myself for a few days, and then one night, over a beer or two, it boiled over. I asked Norminton whether he intended to write the restoration book he had talked about. “My dear chap,” said Norminton, whose democratic principles have not erased a certain Oxbridge hauteur, “that’s nonfiction. I only write fiction.” Would he mind, I asked in some trepidation, if I tried to write it? “I’d be delighted,” he said. Then, after a short pause, he added mischievously, “As long, of course, as you say it was my idea in the preface.”
I am delighted, 10 years later, to honour this small promise. Neither of us had the slightest idea at the time whether ecological restoration was a phrase known only to a few nostalgic prairie lovers in Iowa or was, instead, an idea reshaping new conservation thinking worldwide. That quest has taken me to places and concepts I never knew existed.
I found restorationists working on huge public-works projects in South Africa, and on small plots of jungle, using ancient Mayan techniques, in Chiapas, in Mexico. In Australia the Gondwana Link Project attempts to reconnect eight distinct ecosystems across 1,000km through small- and large-scale restoration projects. In New Zealand repeated extinctions of native species have led to the radical creation of “mainland islands”, where alien mammals are exterminated to restore indigenous plant and animal communities.
It was a very special pleasure to return to Ireland and find that innovative restoration work is being undertaken by semi-State bodies such as Bord na Móna and Coillte, by the State through the National Parks and Wildlife Service and other bodies, and by dynamic NGOs such as Woodlands of Ireland. Restoration was no longer exotic; it was under my nose in my native place, but like many other people I was unaware of it.