The Shame Thing: On William Jordan III's The Sunflower Forest
This came out on Friday in the LA Review of Books:
WHEN I FIRST BROUGHT a group of my undergraduate students to meet William Jordan III at Cafe Mozart in Evanston, Illinois, he told them that each year we should ritualistically destroy a small plot of virgin prairie, of which there is virtually none left in this state, in order to dramatize its importance to us. I assured them that he did not mean this sacrifice literally; he assured them that he did.
At that time, around the turn of the new millennium, William (Bill) Jordan was working on The Sunflower Forest: Ecological Restoration and the New Communion with Nature, which came out in 2003 (reissued in paperback 2012). More than any other writer I know, Bill rehearses his arguments in countless conversations and prepared talks before commuting them to the written word. I can trace remarks he made at a Christmas gathering years ago through several iterations until they became the fully formed ideas that made up his most recent book Making Nature Whole: A History of Ecological Restoration, written with George M. Lubick (2011). So, when Bill assured us he was serious about the ritualistic sacrifice of prairie a decade ago, it anticipated a theme that would emerge sometime later in The Sunflower Forest.
Several ecological restorationists with whom I have spoken over the years confess bewilderment with The Sunflower Forest; they read it hoping to get insights into the “how” of restoration, whereas the book focuses primarily on its performance, ritual and the creation of meaning. However, The Sunflower Forest and its companion Making Nature Whole were not written to appeal to the most immediate pragmatic needs of restoration. They were written to address questions about our troubling relationship with nature. In providing a new paradigm for relating to nature, Bill claimed to offer a “friendly critique” of contemporary environmental thought: of “wilderness” and of Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic, for example. The reception to this friendly criticism has been frosty.