Monday, 22 February 2010

Parallels in Art and Conservation

Different evolutionary stages and regional movements of environmentalism have often been paired with, or at least have found their reflections in some form of contemporaneous art. We all know the striking terror and dualism manifested in the works of romantic artists, and the picturesque natural scenes of the transcendental movement that provide with the wrap of their leafy green quilt a comfort and refuge for contemplation. I recognize the bias and relative rarity of my personal views with respect to environmentalism as a master’s student studying biodiversity conservation, but I find striking parallels between an environmental ideology centered around biodiversity conservation and the works of many artists working under a genre variously titled landscape art, earth art, land art, or earthworks. Beginning in the late 1960’s, a handful of artists abandoned the confines of classical gallery exhibition space and ventured into the open air. With no walls or ceilings to limit their gaze, new works spilled out over and into the landscape, blending earth, man-made structures, sky, and water.

It was upon the suggestion of a friend who is an art student that I first came across Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Attention-fixing if only for their sheer size and audacity, the works of this couple swallow monuments and buildings, carve grasslands, and chromatically insolate islands. As the wow wore off, I was able to see not only the beauty, but also to interpret the poignancy and statement of these constructions. The artists themselves have stated that they pursue no concrete agenda with their art, rather, they only seek novelty and joy. No theme is ever repeated, nor does it make any political or social statement. My best understanding is that they wish to create out of that which is extant with very modest inputs, something new, a new perspective or space. It is here that the lines running parallel between conservation and art deviate from their respective courses, and if they do not ultimately merge, they certainly become more acquainted. From what is there, something new is made. A space is delineated and a place is created. Sheets of white nylon bisect an entire countryside and even the nearby coastal shelf in “Running Fence”. A ‘here’ and a ‘there’ is created from that which was once whole. Similarly, natural spatial delineations are emphasized in “Surrounded Islands”, where islets in Biscayne Bay, Miami, Florida were enveloped in floating swatches of bright pink polypropolene fabric punctuating the inherent separation of the terrestrial islands from the water and nearby mainland, insolating them further.

Here the analogous relationship between conservation and art is physically made manifest on the same template. Conservationists seek to delineate and establish spaces and places on Earth to save or protect something that is held within in which they place some value. Christo and Jeanne-Claude manipulate environmental spaces in very much the same way, but their motivation springs from a different set of values, namely aesthetics and pleasure. In each case, a set of values is projected onto the landscape. This sort of act is not novel, for much of human history man has either reflected his conception of his relationship with nature through culture and its productions, or as his perspective on the natural environment has changed, he has sought to imprint his ideals and values upon the landscape. It is possible to track an evolution of spatial conception in western thought from the topographic to the chorographic to the geographic. In the topographic period societies with limited mobility were necessitated by this circumstance to be intimately familiar with their immediate surroundings, their topography, and had no need to conceive of what existed beyond their sphere of existence. In the chorographic stage, communication and reach expanded, causing people to use astrological reference points to situate themselves both physically in their environment and cosmologically in their world. In the geographic, impediments to mobility disappeared and speed of travel accelerated. Man was finally able to conceive of his earth objectively which led to the notion that he may control it and its constituent parts completely. Consequently, humans have been mapping, partitioning, and generating novel spaces and places to suit their own wants and needs. Our capabilities as a species have allowed us the freedom to believe we can control our world. One expression of this power is in the creation of landscape art or protected areas for conservation. The only thing differentiating the two is what values motivate their genesis.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, along with other fellow earth artists such as Walter Smith, Walter de Maria, Richard Long, Michael Heizer, Andy Goldsworthy, Joseph Bueys, and Bruce Naumann are topical examples of the will of man to create a place or a space out of an environment. Within the field of conservation, WWF’s Ecoregions, Conservation International’s Biodiversity Hotspots, Birdlife International’s Important Bird Areas, IUCN’s Biogeographical Provinces, as well as a broad array of municipal, state, and national parks, wildlife refuges, national forests, and marine reserves worldwide similarly create a new space out of an existing environment. By creating these spaces, what was once only an intangible, abstract ideal becomes a reality, physically bounded and governed by the laws prescribed by nature and man, and having influence and exchange with living things and natural processes. An environment given spatial boundaries and injected with meaning brings with it altered conceptions and prescriptions of acceptable behaviour. It is therefore crucial that adequate forethought be given to the implications that will accompany founding a place on a distinct set of values. While art occasionally dabbles with the natural environment as a template, conservation works solely with the media of biological diversity.

Let us retreat momentarily from our geographic conceptual seat and recognize another thread which weaves its way through landscape art and protected areas in respectively different patterns. Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s pieces are by their design temporally fleeting. Each one is only left fully constructed for a period of fourteen days, long enough only to be felt by a limited number of individuals. When the exhibition’s term has expired, all materials are removed and the landscape is restored exactly as it was found. Richard Long’s Walking a Line in Peru consists of a single path emblazoned across a landscape by the repetitive footfalls of the artist. Within a day of completing the piece and capturing it on film, the line had disappeared and the art had vanished, wiped clean from the canvas by the canvas itself. Partially Buried Woodshed is a sufficiently self-descriptive title for this piece by Robert Smithson who did as the title suggests and then recorded synchronically nature’s reclamation of the place. In each example, temporality is highlighted, and thus dynamism. These works imply the agency of natural forces in shaping and ultimately destroying the constructions themselves. In a similar sense, creating a protected area of any kind is also a fleeting, sometime inconsequential act. Efforts, implementation, policies or funding can prove ineffectual in terms of honouring the values upon which the institution was built, resulting in only a temporary period of protection for whatever the conservation subject may be. In another sense, natural processes have shown they have a way of supplanting anthropogenic efforts to change an environment, although clearly, given the current climate-change scenario and wave of human-driven extinctions, they aren’t immune to human action. On a broader perspective, environments have a way of absorbing and adjusting to disturbance, whatever the magnitude and duration, and achieving a state of dynamic equilibrium. Where it is incontrovertible that humans have had serious deleterious impacts on the earth, in the long term it will rebound, into some state, historic or novel. That is not to say conservation efforts are useless, they have a powerful role in stopping or mitigating the effects of human actions in the short-term, which then resonate in the long-term. But ample respect and credit must be given to the resilience of nature to find its own path.

Using art as a mirror can allow conservationists a different perspective on how they think about their motivation and their work. As every academic and scientific discipline increasingly swaps in sights and bleeds back and forth in present times, maybe art should be given granted a bit more influence. It could help us reconsider what values motivate us and clarify our visions, then maybe find ways to better translate these motivating factors into tangible, long-lasting results.

-Chris Joseph


Saturday, 6 February 2010

Place myths and imagined histories: the restoration of the Scottish Highlands

We all know what nature is, don’t we? Panoramic wilderness, lush green forests, roaring rivers, the dawn chorus and the rest? However, when we start to think about how to use, conserve or change a natural landscape, it becomes apparent that the way we understand and value nature is highly individualistic, and influenced by our personal histories and contexts. William Cronon (1995) is a key author in describing this social construction of nature. Of course, the basic elements and interactions in nature would occur without humans, but the way we understand, value and use this “other” nature is highly influenced by our social context. This means that conservationists work in a landscape defined not only by natural processes, but one also influenced by value-driven outlooks of numerous land-users.

The nature of rural Scotland has in the public focus recently in a manner rarely seen before. There is increasing support for “rewilding” the Scottish landscape through restoring pre-human flora and fauna, seen most controversially in the reintroduction of large mammals such as beaver, wolf, lynx and even bears. However, the social, cultural and political context which underlies this debate is not always properly explained. Conservation of the Scottish landscape is not as simple as saving an external, “othered” nature. Instead, it results from a tempestuous history, which has left several groups with competing concerns over who should define and manage the natural landscape.

It’s not always immediately obvious, but the Scottish Highlands are an artificial “wilderness”. Forced, and often brutal, evictions of crofting families throughout the 18th and 19th centuries in order to clear land for sheep farming caused huge social upheaval and resentment. The parallel expansion of aristocracy-based shooting estates (with accompanying explosion in deer numbers, and resulting ecological damage), and Victorian “Balmoralisation” (which valued an empty, wild Scottish landscape for the sporting and artistic use of the upper-classes), changed the natural and social face of the Highlands dramatically.

Rewilding is often framed as a purely ecological argument, restoring ecosystem function through the reintroduction of species which play important ecological functions, such as predation (e.g. lynx) or habitat creation (e.g. beaver), but have been lost due to human actions. As a result of the history of the Scottish countryside, rewilding may also be manifestation of the struggles over redefining and reappropriating land rights, through community forestry (e.g. Abernethy) and community land ownership (for an excellent discussion, see Mark Toogood’s 2003 chapter in Decolonising Nature).

Scottish conservation discourse reflects this tension about how to manage the land, and for whom. Forestry literature distributed by the Scottish Wildlife Trust and Scottish National Heritage is littered with value-laden words like “sublime” and “wilderness”, which evoke a pre-human “blanket forest” in the Highlands (the extent of which is debated – see Brown 1997 and Rackham 1976). Forests have always had a deep cultural resonance as wild, spiritual and mythical places. In the English language the words “wild” and “wood” both grew out of the root wald, which split into “weald” and “wold”, meaning both a wooded place, and a place inhabited by wild creatures like wolves and bears. Similarly, the Latin word silva is the root for both “forest” and “savage” (Both these etymological facts come from Robert MacFarlane’s brilliant 2007 book The Wild Places). It is clear, therefore, how forest restoration can become a powerful discourse in reappropriation of natural and cultural histories.

At the moment, I’m interested in how this discourse of reappropriation – through what Mark Toogood labels “an imagined history” – influences Scottish conservation, in particular ecological restoration. Is ecological restoration influenced by attempts to return to an idealised pre-English, pre-aristocracy “nature”? How do conceptions of historical landscapes (Toogood’s “place-myths”) correspond to the findings of long-term ecology? Will the influence of imagined histories lead to compositionalist restoration attempts which may be left unsuited and unable to adapt to future climate change? Are we as academics being too idealistic in what people want from their landscape? Is the cultural importance of reappropriation as important as being able to make a living from the land?

All of these questions are a work in progress for me at the moment (and will hopefully underpin my dissertation). I’d hope that working at this intersection between long-term ecology and cultural history could yield interesting results for conservation management.

Rob St.John

A few good references:

Brown N (1995) Re-defining native woodland. Forestry 70(3): 191

Cronon W (1995) The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature. Cronon W, ed., Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1995, 69-90

Macfarlane R (2007) The Wild Places. Granta, London.

Rackham O (1976) Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape. Orion, London

Toogood M (2003) Decolonising Highland conservation. In Decolonising Nature: Strategies for Conservation in a Post-colonial era. Adams WM and Mulligan M eds. 152-172. Earthscan, London

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Novel Ecosystems

“It's the end of the world as we know it.....
….. and I feel fine”
The Long Term Ecology module is having a strange effect on me.
When we start looking beyond ourselves – beyond a lifetime, beyond the century, beyond the millennium and beyond the time human beings have on earth – everything seems fine. We as a species have been on this planet for a negligible part of its life time, and so although we may leave some permanent scars, whatever we do on this earth is likely to be relatively insignificant. And what one individual does in his life time is sure to be completely insignificant.
I had an uneasy feeling after the first session, but it really got to me with a paper by James Harris and his friends, titled 'ecological restoration and global climate change', which we had to read for the class on 'determination of baselines and natural system variability'.
Whenever we try to undo the damage and destruction we have caused in the natural world – 'restoration', the first question that comes up is what do we want to restore to? The general idea is to take it back to 'the ecosystem present before human influence became pronounced on the landscape' (the definition of a baseline). But how far back do we go to define this baseline? Twenty years? To a point before industrialisation? But what about the fires and other manipulation by indigenous people, possibly thousands of years ago? I would tend to go with ‘before industrialisation’, and would modify the baseline definition to 'the ecosystem present before fossil-fuel aided human influence became pronounced on the landscape'.
And I thought I was OK with that. Indigenous people and their rubbing sticks for fire in slash and burn agriculture was acceptable. They were a part of the ecosystem, and interacted with it on a somewhat equal footing. Us modern lot, with JCBs and selective herbicides are not. We’ve had an unfair advantage, and the ability to destroy it completely. So as far as I’m concerned, in our efforts to save the planet we should try not to meddle with the natural world too much – only try to take things back to the way they were a few 100 years ago. Not try to play God and intensively 'manage' forests under the arrogant assumption that we understand how it all works.
But then along came the Harris paper (and the lecture) and disturbed my peace. The global climate is changing at an unprecedented rate – rainfall is becoming erratic, sea levels are rising, the temperature is going up and everything is altogether more unpredictable. Our first reaction is to try to stop it all and possibly slow down climate change. But are we really going to be able to stop the gas guzzlers? We can perhaps slow them down a bit, but with the whole world now aspiring to the very lifestyle and values (of greed and accumulating wealth) that is destroying the world there seems little hope. From any angle climate change looks inevitable.
Animal and plant species are also going to have to adapt very rapidly if they want to survive. Population ranges are going to have to move away from the equator and towards the poles to find suitable cooler habitats. Or perhaps up mountain slopes to higher altitudes. Unfortunately though, they can't really do that any more. We've got all the land around them, and have fenced them into 'protected areas'. So species are going to die out, and ecosystems are going to stop functioning. Unless we are able to find and introduce other species that can survive in the new conditions to replace the roles played by the locally extinct ones. We can’t just try to restore things back to the way there were, because we can’t reverse climate change. We need to experiment at a massive scale – a mix and match between a host of species to create 'novel ecosystems'.
Our iconic Nilgiri tahr will go up and up the mountains, but they won't be able to evolve wings fast enough, so our best bet would be to catch them all and throw them in with their Himalayan cousins.
Perhaps stop trying to fight lantana. Just modify its genes slightly so that the herbivores can eat it.
When it gets too hot for the cerana and dorsata bees we transport their African relatives over to see how they can cope.
We don't have a choice - even with our limited understanding we have to try and play God.
It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.