Friday, May 16, 2008

Don't forget the primates

Just back from a week visiting my folks and my high school reunion. Nice bunch of people.

I spent a bunch of the day on Monday with my friend Nathan who was in my class in second and fifth grades and in high school and whose parents then moved to New Hampshire near where I lived for seven years. So we've kept in touch. He's doing interesting work in forestry now, and our conversation turned to his interest in restoring old-growth forests through management. This sounds utterly counter-intuitive if we're used to a wilderness-based way of thinking, but it echoes some other interesting reads recently.

My favorite book from last year is Charles Mann's 1491. And its most controversial claim seems to be that much of the Americas that we grew up thinking of as wilderness was in fact managed, just using very different techniques than Old-World-style agriculture. I gather it's controversial in part because some environmentalists think of this as an excuse to bulldoze the Amazon, and because it challenges the ideal of a human-free wilderness.

Nathan says he has a line he uses to try and get past the human/wilderness mind-block: "Don't forget the primates." Think of us as a species who has been an integral part of the ecosystem. Don't assume that the best way to restore a functioning ecosystem is to remove the homo sapiens. Seems obvious to me, but so much of our basic thinking about the environment in the modern western world is bifurcated: here's the boundary of the park, and on this side is people's land, on the other side is not-people's land (on this side of the line is the Euro-American land, and on that side (until my brother bilks you out of it) is the Amero-American land).

And so I go off on a variant riff of the "grid" conversation of a couple months ago. As I was arguing then, the trouble is not with the grid as a measure, or as a way of organizing information. The trouble is when the grid is used to impose lines back onto the land. This reimposed grid is a symptom of the same sort of disassociation with the landscape that posits "non-human" wilderness.