Rituals of restoration – man’s relationship with nature – The Human Challenge of Ecological Restoration

William R. Jordan, III

When considering the status of the relationship between nature and a particular culture, one of the most basic and straightforward questions we can ask is: who, exactly, negotiates the relationship? Or, to be more precise, what kinds of relationships with nature can be negotiated by individuals, on the one hand, and people acting as a group-the human community, if you will-on the other?

This question appears to be so obvious that it hardly seems worth asking. Yet it is a question that raises some very real and fundamental issues about our own society and its history-issues which, I suspect, have a great deal to do, in turn, with our many and varied environmental problems.

A distinctive feature of American society is its strong emphasis on individualism, as well as its explicit rejection of the rituals that have traditionally served to both define and affirm community. This is, to some extent, the legacy of the Puritans, who rejected the liturgical tradition of Anglicanism which, like Catholicism, emphasized rituals conducted by a consecrated clergy as a way of affirming the community of the faithful and negotiating its relationship with God.

The Puritans’ aim was to eliminate the intermediary in order to clear the way for individuals seeking to deal directly with their creator. Implicit in this reaction was a kind of radical individualism. Despite the many restrictions placed upon an individual’s behavior in Puritan communities, the path between human beings and their God was direct and unmediated. Ultimately, it was the individual who stood-justified or unjustified-before divinity, while the community’s role in matters of ritual and redemption became of secondary importance.

Even the most rudimentary ritual traditions were further weakened by separatism, sometimes resulting in the full spiritual isolation of individuals. The separatist Roger Williams, for instance, defected from the Puritan congregation in Boston and concluded that he could share communion, the fundamental ritual of community, only with his wife.

Isolation, separation, and sectarian splitting were all inevitable, given the underpinnings of Puritanism. At times, believers formed “congregations of one”-the only churches seemingly worth joining. This tradition remains intact in the writings of thinkers like Emerson and Thoreau. Both were heavily influenced by the Puritans, as is evident in their emphases on individual self-reliance and their skepticism about society and what Thoreau called its “filthy institutions.”

The “congregation of one” which so troubled the Puritan imagination is often realized in the visions and practices of those who form the canon of American nature writing. The work of such writers as John Muir, Robert Frost, Aldo Leopold, Loren Eiseley, and Ed Abbey affirms the value of the individual quest but also reveals its limitations-limitations which I believe underlie the failure of modern environmentalists to come to grips with the fundamental problem of the relationship between nature and culture.

These, I suggest, stem from the old Puritan habits of spiritual self-reliance and the downplaying of community or, if you will, “communion,” be it with other people, with a deity, or with nature. The limitations of this tradition are especially obvious from an ecological perspective. Human beings are a social species. For such creatures, the solitary individual is actually an ecological nonentity, as helpless and irrelevant as a solitary honeybee. For we humans, the link to nature is necessarily mediated by community. And the solitary individual-King Lear’s “unaccommodated man”-is cut off not only from the human but also from the wider community of plants and animals.

In the end, and as important as solitary experience may be, the relationship between humans and the rest of nature is essentially one between communities, and it is the community, not the individual acting alone, that negotiates the terms of the relationship. To borrow a phrase from jurisprudence, it is not the individual but the community which has standing with nature.

Relationships, like communities, are subtle and complex affairs. This is true of ecological relationships generally, and it is certainly true of the relationship between “nature” and a species which has, in certain respects, “transcended” nature or, at the very least, brought something new into it by substituting a rapid, electronic form of evolution (thinking) for a much slower, chemical-based one through mutation and natural selection.

This has led to a widening gap between humans and the rest of nature, not just since the scientific revolution or even the invention of agriculture but from the earliest times of which we have any record-a state of affairs that explains our preoccupation with ways of closing or at least bridging the gap between nature and culture. One way of at least symbolically bridging that gap has been through ritual, festival, and public performance.

When communities are weakened– and especially when they lose access to rituals of community, the experience of ritual itself and a sense of its efficacy-their competence to negotiate this relationship is seriously compromised and their members are left without the means to achieve full communion with nature. The result is a society alienated from nature. This, I would argue, is the real root of ecological catastrophe.

No one but a fool would suppose that ritual in and of itself offers a simple solution to, or an easy way out of, our present environmental difficulties. At the same time, no one with any sense of the value of ritual-the critical role it plays in the making and sustaining of community and the negotiating of problematic relationships in general-will suppose that we can solve our problems without it.

We need ritual and access to ritual experience to bring about the needed inner changes in ourselves and to establish contact with the other, less reflexive organisms with which we share the planet. But the question remains, what sort of rituals? They may be derived from the rituals of indigenous peoples, peasant cultures, and other earth-based traditions. But the best rituals will be those which grow out of our own actual experience and reflect the circumstances of particular times and places.

One solid base for such a system of rituals, I have come to believe, is ecological restoration. The process of deliberately and actively compensating for our own influence on a particular landscape or ecosystem (by reintroducing extirpated native species, for example, or removing troublesome exotic ones) is by nature an act of reciprocity. It is also a task which engages a wide range of human interests and abilities; it involves many evocative activities such as gathering and planting seed, and even more dramatic events such as the burning of prairies.

Not surprisingly, people find this work rewarding, and in recent years large numbers of people have begun to participate in restoration work on a voluntary basis. This work then becomes part of their immediate experience-the experiential and economic scaffold, as it were, for the creation of a system of rituals for negotiating the relationship between the human and larger biotic communities.

This, then, places us in a position at least to address the most fundamental of environmental problems: that of human “reentry” into nature. Loren Eiseley framed this problem especially well when, in The Invisible Pyramid, he wrote of the human need to reenter what he called the “sunflower forest” of original nature without leaving behind what we have learned “on the pathway to the moon.”

In the most concrete terms, what Eiseley was calling for is a way not merely of preserving but actually of reinhabiting the wild. But how to do so is tricky. At one point in his journal, Thoreau proposed to join a marshland community by wading in and spending a day immersed like a muskrat up to his eyes in water. Is this a useful solution? Quite apart from its impracticality, it is not natural. By spending his time alone and immersed, Thoreau would have left behind much of his own biological and cultural heritage. Besides, muskrats don’t sit all day meditating in the water; instead, they go about their business in the marsh and, in the process, do much to shape and build that ecosystem.

Restoration provides a path back into Eiseley’s “sunflower forest” without passive (and unnatural) immersion up to our eyeballs. The restorationist, in working over his or her piece of land and attempting to reshape and rebuild it, manages to establish a relationship with it that is both comprehensive and constructive. As Leopold would put it, the work of restoration is “mutually beneficial.”

To see this, it is necessary to look beyond the products of restoration efforts and to consider the act or process of restoration itself, as well as the kind of relationship with nature it suggests. Whatever its results, whatever the precise nature or quality of its product, restoration represents a deliberate, intimate participation in the ecology of the community or ecosystem under restoration. It raises a whole series of questions about the system for which the restorationist has to find answers. These include questions about composition and structure, about abiotic influences like sunlight, water (as rainfall, humidity, and drainage), soils, climate, the functioning of systems, and the way systems may change over time.

The restorationist also confronts an endless series of questions about the behavior of the component species, relationships among them, and their relationships with various abiotic factors. The experience of restorationists at the University of Wisconsin, Madison Arboretum, which has been the site of pioneering research on ecological restoration for more than haft a century, provides many examples.

Partly as a result of these classic restoration efforts, it is now clear that tall-grass prairies depend upon fire, and that the many plants and animals which make it up are adapted to fire in many ways. The roots and seeds of prairie grass survive the controlled burnings, as do many prairie animals. But the blaze destroys dead grass, which mats to cover the ground, shielding it from necessary sunlight and blocking new growth. The fires also kill competing species, like trees and weeds, allowing the prairie to regrow. In fact, when indigenous prairie plants are forced to compete with exotic but not fire-adapted species, fire can decisively tip the balance in their favor.

Similarly, early efforts to introduce spring-looming herbs into a maple forest at the arboretum only recently led to the discovery that ants probably play a critical role in the dispersal of many of these species. In the absence of the appropriate species of ants, the plants failed to spread by seed and formed odd matlike clones, quite uncharacteristic of natural, ant-endowed forests, where spring ephemerals such as bloodroot and wild ginger are sprinkled about the ground layer in twos and threes.

In this way, by trying to assemble or reassemble the ecosystem, the restorationist in effect joins the natural community-becomes a native American setting fire to the prairie, becomes an ant gathering seed and hauling it off into storage-and in this way becomes privy to secrets that might not be revealed even to the most attentive of observers. Restoration, therefore, is a little like gardening and a little like agriculture but dedicated to the re-creation of communites based upon naturally occurring models rather than the production of food or fiber.

This, I would claim, is a more natural relationship between human and other biotic communities than preservation alone, which might be caricatured as “take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints.” Strict preservationism not only sees human beings as trespassers and vandals upon “nature” but also denies us membership in the land community and minimizes our classic role as hunters, gatherers, predators, and shapers of landscape. This is the kind of reasoning which leads, for all of its idealization of innocence, to the almost apocalyptic despair of Bill McKibben’s book, The End of Nature, with its hopeless and destructive implication that we don’t really belong on the planet at all.

Restoration, on the other hand, assumes that humans have always-at least since the invention of language-distinguished nature from culture and have been aware of the deep tension between themselves and the rest of nature. If they have often managed to achieve a measure of harmony between nature and culture at the ecological and psychological levels, this is not “natural” in the sense of being un-self-conscious. Rather, it is an achievement-actually a work of art. People have always had to find their way back into the sunflower forest. And ritual has always been essential-the most fundamental of technologies, as it were-for achieving this.

From these considerations, restoration ecologists have proposed an entirely different environmental paradigm, Which may be summarized as follows:

* Human beings have always felt a certain tension between themselves and nature. This is not a recent development-the result of civilization, the scientific revolution, or the invention of monotheism. It is, rather, part of being human, of having achieved a higher level of self, awareness than other creatures.

* One of the prime functions of culture is to deal with this tension, providing a way of mediating the relationship with nature.

* This is impossible in a purely literal or concrete way and can be achieved only in the realms of the imagination, via the technologies of ritual and performing arts.

* To the extent this is true, the real root of modern alienation from nature is not science or technology but loss of the sense of the efficacy of ritual, especially since the Reformation and Puritanism, both of which mounted explicit attacks on ritualized and symbolic representations.

* Finally, the process of ecological restoration provides an ideal framework for the development of a system of rituals for dealing with and working out the terms of our collective relationship with nature.

Obviously, this way of modeling our relationship with nature has implications very different from those of the immersionist or preservationist paradigms, both founded upon a presupposition of primal innocence. It also leads us to a very different place. In particular, it leads us back into nature, into the sunflower forest, without demanding, impossibly, that we regress historically, or that we cease to be who and what we are and who and what we are becoming.

What it suggests, actually, is the possibility of recovering a “classical” relationship with nature-a real postmodern primitivism. The key to this is the recovery of ritual, or the performative tradition of ritual itself, as the dimension in which human beings have always negotiated problematic relationships such as those with nature or their gods.

The new rituals themselves, however, must be rooted in our own cultures and our own ways of doing things. Therefore, they must be conventional and communal and grow out of the shared work and experience of a given community. Fortunately, restoration meets these criteria, since restoration projects have long tended to become community events-such as those organized by the North Branch Prairie group in Chicago, the Bernal Hill volunteers in San Francisco, and the growing armies of restorationists now working in New York’s Central Park.

But what might such public, communal restoration rituals look like? And what, in a related vein, is my vision for the future of restoration ecology?

My answer is set somewhere in the not-too-distant future. It is, say, late November, the height of the fall burning season on the tall, grass prairies. Interstate highways-80 across Iowa and Illinois, 55 and 57 linking Chicago and St. Louis, 35 between Kansas City and St. Paul-are closed down over long stretches to permit burning of the broad prairies that now line those transportation corridors. Truckers detour the region, or leave their rigs in truck-stop parking lots to join what for many has become a ritual linking them with a landscape they once merely drove across, and with human communities with which they once had no contact at all.

The great fall burns on the prairies are now among the area’s most significant seasonal events. Schools close and towns empty as a whole population emigrates to the countryside for a long weekend of burning, seed, gathering, and festivity. The event-which has long since displaced professional football as the centerpiece of Thanksgiving, revitalizing and giving new meaning to a native American holiday-accomplishes many things.

Not least, it has provided the labor and the constituency that enabled conservationists, building on the work of pioneers such as Wes Jackson of Kansas and Bob Betz in Illinois, to expand the tall-grass prairies beyond the wildest dreams of environmentalists a generation ago. And it has integrated them into agricultural systems and made them once again a distinctive feature of the midwestern landscape. As a result, some 15 percent of both Illinois and Iowa are now prairie, and the results are visible not only from the highway but from outer space as well.

At the same time, the burns have brought human communities together and provided them with new and vital links with the historic landscape. Together with the other events in the prairie-restoration calendar, they have also provided the basis for a new relationship between the immigrant peoples and the indigenous people who originally inhabited the area. Native Americans have played a leading role in the development of the new tradition, which reflects in many ways their ancient practices and rituals.

It is, say, 2042. The electric trucks stand idle by the highway, while the drivers-one of them may be your granddaughter -stand chatting in groups, watching the smoke of the prairie fires on the horizon.

William R. Jordan III, Ph.D., is founder and editor of Restoration and Management Notes, a rounding member and board member of the Society for Ecological Restoration, and director of public outreach for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum.

COPYRIGHT 1993 American Humanist Association

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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