Monday, January 21, 2013

Uncanny Landscapes: Leaving Behind the Landscapes of Childhood

Savanna/Woodland, Lake Co, Illinois

On a spring afternoon in the early years of this century I took a stroll through the East Woods at the Morton Arboretum near Lisle, Illinois. The trees were still leafless and the light was very fierce, so much so that I shielded my eyes with my hand, as if I was saluting my companion. Christopher, who walked beside me, and I were admiring the ecological restoration work that had been accomplished in that woodland over the years since I had been visiting. Dominated by oaks and sugar maples the East Woods is about five hundred acres, the same as Ashdown Forest in England where Winnie-the-Pooh lived. In fact, the part in which we rambled was about 100 acres like that part of Ashdown Forest around Owl’s house known to Pooh and his friends as the 100 acre wood.
As far as anyone can tell the vegetation composition of the East Woods now converges on that found in the woods more than a century before. After the mid 19th century the woodlands of the Chicago area came under the influence of the huge numbers of new settlers in the area, altering hydrology, modifying fire regimes, selectively logging trees, introducing alien species and so on. Undoing these influences and restoring representative woodlands to their pre-settlement composition is a goal of some Chicago-area conservation organizations. Marlin Bowles, an ecologist at the Arboretum, is an authority on reconstructing the region’s pre-settlement vegetation, doing so by digitizing early land surveyors’ notes and creating regional vegetation maps for the 1800s. Bowles and his colleagues have applied this information to the ongoing restoration work at the East Woods.
Between the trees every once in a while we could see clumps of green where buckthorn, an invasive shrub, was leafing out, taking advantage of the early spring light before other vegetation had emerged from its winters quiescence. On my early visits to the East Woods it has been heavily invaded by European buckthorn, an especially aggressive exotic Old World shrub which has become one of the major impediments to restoration efforts in Midwestern woodlands. The buckthorn population in the East Woods had been markedly diminished.
Christopher Dunn, my fellow stroller, was at that time the Arboretum’s director of research. Like buckthorn both Christopher are I old world transplants. Christopher is a Scot, and I am from Dublin. Unlike buckthorn which had been in the region since the mid-1800s, Christopher and I were very recent arrivals. Christopher, if I recall correctly, came over when he was a teenager and I when I was a little over thirty. We stopped at a point where we could look over the terrain and admire the fidelity with which the restoration work has returned the woodland to the structure of a pre-settlement Midwestern woodland, and as did, we turned to each other, and simultaneously it seems we both had the same thought: “There is something not quite right about this.” In a nostalgic moment, apparently, both of us recalled the woodlands of Ireland and Scotland. These tended to be darker, more tightly packed habitats often on craggier terrain than is typically the case in this flatter part of the world. We were, for a moment at least, contrasting the East Woods not with the conjectured state of that woodland in 1800s, freed from the injurious impacts of the past century, but with the woodlands of memory, against which any woodland might seem like a collection of so many living sticks.
We are living in times of great transplantation. About one and a half percent of the US population moves between the major regions every year and roughly the same move to a different state within the same region. An additional three percent move across county lines. Internationally, the numbers of people crossing borders is staggering. For instance, if all those who migrated internationally in 2010, about 216 million people, converged on an uninhabited region (say Antarctica) it would make that country the fifth most populous country on Earth. And the flow of capital and products is even less restricted. If all internationally transported goods ended up in that one uninhabited region, no doubt it would sink! Accompanying the flow of goods, services, and people is a great biological interchange where species which formerly restricted to one biogeograhical zone are transported either deliberately or unintentionally to areas outside their native range. Christopher and I standing in the 100 acre woods personified these frenzied exchanges. Old world islanders in the US Midwest discussing a European botanical rarity now thriving in a restored Chicago woodland.
Now, one of the implications great transplantation that has heretofore been neglected is that many of us end up living in landscapes different from the ones in which they were raised. Since a person’s attunement towards nature is oftentimes determined by youthful encounters with landscapes, that which is most delightful to us in nature as adults is that which we remember from our youth. Thus the landscapes of our adulthood are somewhat uncanny to us. Does this in turn make it difficult for us to care for them no matter how pristine, managed, or restored they are. Or, perhaps more realistically, do we need new tools — tools of initiation, imagination, and empathy — to fit into a landscape that is new to us?
That is the question I will be exploring in the coming posts.

Internal Migration in the United States Raven Molloy, Christopher L. Smith and Abigail Wozniak The Journal of Economic Perspectives Vol. 25, No. 3 (Summer 2011) (pp. 173-196).

No comments:

Post a Comment