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

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.

Strange ritual
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.

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.

No fixed principles
The practice of ecological restoration, and its related scientific discipline of restoration ecology, are not established fields with agreed or fixed basic principles. They are more like lively adolescents, buzzing with energy and vibrant contradictions. Restorationists are, after all, attempting to engage with a global environment whose evolutionary shape-shifting tendencies are accelerated unpredictably by climate change.

Nevertheless, the spark that the phrase “ecological restoration” ignited for me on that damp night has become a steadily burning passion that continues to illuminate two hopeful prospects I glimpsed on that occasion: firstly, that the natural world is considerably more resilient than I had thought, and that damaged and degraded ecosystems can rebuild a great deal of their complex webs of species, communities and ecological processes if we give them half a chance to do so; and, secondly, that human beings can assist in managing this restoration process, and that in so doing we may restore our own relationship to nature.

“Saving nature”, then, might not just mean a last-fence stand to preserve shrinking islands of wilderness by keeping people out of them. Through restoration we might escape from our locked dichotomy between the twin roles of destroyers and preservers and find a more rewarding way to facilitate and participate in natural processes.

The human stories I encountered show evidence of our frailties: in science, in policy and politics, and in personal relationships. But they carry, overall, a welcome reminder that there is nothing inevitable about humanity’s current starring role as the bad guy of Planet Earth. The obstacles are daunting, but enough scientific knowledge is available to turn us into the caretakers or stewards of the biosphere, of which we form an integral part.

I’ve learned that soil was the basis of all restoration but that very few restorationists pay it much attention. And that those who did confessed freely that they understood very little about how the microfauna and microflora under our feet interact. If restoration was part of the solution to the global environmental crisis, it was clearly no silver bullet.

But I had also heard a rousing address by Keith Bowers, then chairperson of the Society for Ecological Restoration, telling delegates that “ecological restoration is the reframed environmental movement” and that that reframing was focused on “restoring the future”.

I am not starry-eyed about ecological restoration. From a scientific perspective alone, the race to close restoration’s knowledge gaps, even as climate change and other accelerating human effects on the environment are widening them, will be very difficult to win. Indeed, some leading restoration ecologists now question whether it is winnable, sparking a passionate controversy within the movement.

And even if this race is winnable in theory, there are a host of daunting obstacles in practice: rapidly expanding human populations; the seemingly inexorable rise of consumer demands on critically limited resources; and the ideologies of unregulated greed and apocalyptic irrational fanaticisms that stride the world stage of human affairs.

But restoration, as a conservation strategy that embraces both biodiversity and human needs with energy, imagination and innovation, offers new paths through this bleak scenario. The future of our planet, and of our species, may depend on whether we decide to follow them.

Our Once and Future Planet: Restoring the World in the Climate Change Century is published this month by University of Chicago Press; it will be launched by Mary Robinson on December 5th