Monday, October 28, 2013

One Thousand Urban Miles - Take The Praeger Walking Challenge

In 1902 Robert Lloyd Praeger, the prolific Irish naturalist, recorded a new occurrence of the rare grass Milium effusum (wood millet) in Dublin. He discovered it in Bushy Park, which was adjacent to his home on Zion Road in Rathgar, a few miles south of the city center. This was the park where more than seventy years later I played as a child, being a five-minute walk from my childhood home. It is the park that I visit every time I return to Dublin.

In Ireland, Praeger is associated with the botanical investigation of that country’s wildest places. Less attention has been paid to Praeger as a proto-urban ecologist: a naturalist who spent most of his life in the city, who wrote extensively about his garden, and who devoted a chapter of his most renowned book, The Way That I Went, An Irishman in Ireland (1937), to Dublin and its environs. He wrote there on the famous wagtail roosts in O’Connell Street, the ferns on Dublin walls, and the plants on North Bull Island, a coastal conservation area in Dublin bay. He and a small team also surveyed and wrote extensively on Lambay Island a couple of miles off the coast, north of the city.

In addition to his urban interests, what appeals to me about Praeger is that though in many ways he was a fairly traditional natural historian whose extensive writings—in all there were 800 papers and twenty-four books—detail the distribution of plants in Ireland, he nonetheless wrote reflectively and lyrically about botanical field work as a pleasure for its own sake. Praeger raised walking to the level of exultation and methodology, and not conveyance merely. After all, his most famous book is The Way That I Went—not Where I Went and What I Found There.

I have been working on a lengthy essay on Praeger in recent months, having spent a week last February rummaging through his archives in the Royal Irish Academy, in Dublin. During this time, the idea occurred to me that not only is there a Praegerian product (all those papers and books) but there is also a Praegerian spirit: a spirit of openness to the world, a type of attentiveness that Praeger insists one can cultivate only on foot. Working on this material, I decided that I would, as a type of sympathetic exercise, embrace Praeger’s peripatetic inclination, but employ it in a strictly urban direction, bringing together two parts of Praeger’s work and interests. I am proposing therefore, over each of the next five years, to walk 1000 miles in the city. I invite you to join me by planning a thousand-mile walk of your own in the city or town in which you live. Before you commit, let me give you a little more information on the great man himself and the significance of the 1000-mile annual walk.

Read on at City Creatures here

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Chicago Wilderness: Work of the Science Team

These were my introductory remarks at a recent session at the Society For Ecological Restoration meeting in Madison, WI, on recent scientific research in the CW region.

Let me start this session with a vignette of Chicago from a couple of centuries ago – mainly to remind us how recent are the losses of the wild Midwest landscapes.

On August 19th 1833, that is 180 years ago, Colonel Colbee Chamberlain Benton (1805-1880) left Chicago with Louis Ouilmette, a young man of French and Potawatomi heritage, to inform local Indian tribes that their delayed federal annuities would be paid in September of that year.  At that time the white settler population was little more than 150 people.  A few years later in 1837 Chicago was chartered as a city after which growth was explosive.

On the night of August 24th the pair of travelers passed through some oak groves and arrived at a small stream in a little prairie in Southeast Wisconsin and they camped there for the night.  As night fell they heard Indians around their camp.

Benton didn’t sleep.  However, even if they had been “in danger of suffering from the power of… the tomahawk and scalping knives” it was not fear that kept him awake.  He remarked, in fact, there was something about his circumstances “so novel and romantic….that it dispelled every fear…”
So what kept Benton from his sleep?  It was the noise!  Some of the noise certainly may have emanated from the Indians who “mocked almost every wild animal.”  But also there were a loud wild chorus: unfamiliar birds called, as well as foxes and raccoons.  In the distance, wolves howled and the owls hooted in concert with the wolves.  The mosquitoes added their part to “the music”.  A sleepless, noisy, vaguely threatening night, and yet Benton declared that never before had he “passed a night so interestingly and so pleasantly…”
I tell this story, not to depress us, though it may indeed make us melancholy to contemplate the loss, but rather to allow us celebrate the work of a many many people in the Chicago region in recent decades who worked then, and work now, to arrest the degradation of our remaining wildlands, and to restore those systems where and when we can.

Many of these people and the organizations they represent have coalesced over the past decade and a half in the Chicago Wilderness coalition.  The term CW refers both 360,000 acres of protected natural lands in the tristate region surrounding Chicago……but the term also refers to the partners in the coalition – starting with 40 institutional members or so in 1996… but growing to 240 + institutional members in 2012.  I believe we just stopped counting!

The biodiversity goals of the coalition were stated in the Biodiversity Recovery Plan, a foundational document for the coalition, as follows: “To protect the natural communities of the Chicago region and to restore them to long-term viability, in order to enrich the quality of life of its citizens and to contribute to the preservation of global biodiversity.” Note that the goals are both ecological and social and the aspirations are global.

A major metropolitan environment might seem on first inspection an unlikely place to support a conservation project with global aspirations.  Yet in the early development of the Chicago sufficient land of a sort that Colonel Benton and Ouilmette witnessed, was set aside adjacent to and sometimes within the city so that, oddly perhaps, some of the areas of greatest favorability to T+E species are found close to downtown, more so that in the rest of the state.

Although considerable land is set aside nonetheless the health of this land is considerably challenged.  A few years ago expert panels in CW documented the status and changes in CW ecosystems which was then published as a report card.

The results are troubling.  My kids would have had to come up with some impressive excuses to explain these ones away. Our streams make an encouraging C- though!

We now have considerable insight into environmental factors driving the erosion of ecological quality: many of these being the usual suspects: hydrological changes, fragmentation, altered fire regimes, invasive species and so forth.

Chicago Wilderness works to achieve regional impact through four initiatives: Climate Change, Leave No Child inside, Greening Infrastructure and Restoring Nature.

All speakers today contribute to the work of the Chicago Wilderness science team. We are tasked with providing scientifically sound input to assist decision-makers in devising policy and action concerning the protection, acquisition, restoration, and management of natural areas.

We have also been developing research agendas identified those empirical unknowns that needed to be understood on the short to medium time scale in order to remove impediments to CW achieving its long term goals.

Over the past 5 years we have developed a network of sites for long-term observation on biodiversity outcome – we call this “100 sites for 100 years” (recognizing that this terrifies our funders!).  Secondly we have been investigating the institutional context for decision making processes in the CW region, attempting to find ways of linking our social and ecological research so that we can envision the region as a coupled natural ecological system.  We have also been investigating patterns of stewardship in the region.
Today we present summaries on many of our research initiatives.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Our Once and Future Planet: my remarks as host of the launch, Oct 14 2013

My name if Liam Heneghan and I am a professor here in the Department of Environmental Science and Studies and co-director of the DePaul University Institute for Nature and Culture. It is my great pleasure this evening to host the launch for Paddy Woodworth’s new book Our Once and Future Planet: Restoring the World in the Climate Change Century. The event is co-sponsored by University of Chicago Press. Many thanks to Christie Henry and to all who worked on this book at the Press.
Paddy Woodworth is well known Irish journalist. The Ireland of my younger days was a place where many bought two newspapers, one of which was always the Irish Times. Paddy was a staff journalist at the Irish Times from 1988 to 2002, as arts editor and as an editor and contributor on the foreign desk. He has, over the years, written extensively on Spain. His first book, Dirty War, Clean Hands, published in 2001, was published to much acclaim. More recently Paddy published The Basque Country (2007) which is a collection of essays on that region. As some of you know I am interested in a style of work called “Deep Mapping” where an author or artist deeply inhabits a place, dwelling in and on the details of a region. Paddy’s attentiveness to people, to place, to tradition, to politics and to the poetry of place marks him as a deep mapper of some significance.
In recent years Paddy has turned his attention to environmental issues. This is not as surprising as it might at first seem. Even in his political writing he has been drawn to the wilder tones of the landscapes where political events occurred. Listen to this from the Basque Country: “Forty minutes of comfortable ascent through cool beech and larch woods lead the walker out into alpine meadows for which the word sublime might have been coined….And from these sublime fields you can go further, much further. Limestone peaks poke through the meadows at intervals around the perimeter and the most seductive ones form the crest of the Aizkoori range, a few mile away to the north-east.” This sanctuary, as he described it, is nonetheless where “religion and nationality, sacrifice and violence” intersect. This sanctuary is where in the 1960s ETA used to recruit from among young men on their nocturnal pilgrimage in the Basque mountains. In addition to his attentiveness to nature in his writing, Paddy is an avid birder and is very involved in the Irish birding world. Recently, Paddy lead a group of my students on a tour of the National Park in Wicklow, Ireland. I can assure you that after our 10 mile tramp Paddy was by far the sprightliest of us all - here is an Irishman built for both stern mountainside and the snug of a hostelry at journey’s end.
It is probably the case that his work as political writer, as a writer on terrorism, prepared him only some of the way for entering into the fractious world of environmental thought and action. Restoration, the attempt to reverse the baleful influence of human damage on lands set aside for conservation purposes, is not like forms of environmental action that urges us to step away and leave things alone. If ever that option was available to us it is no longer so. In engaging with the land and restoring it for useful purpose, or in honoring our commitment to the conservation of rarer species — some of which species are woefully under-charismatic — there are tough choices to be made: the science is new, the action is at times trial and error, the stakes are high. In fact, as we face a future that by consequence of climate change, may look little like the past, the choices that face us are more and more consequential. It is into this interesting, important, and fraught world - the world of restoration — that Paddy has entered in recent years. 
The result of his work which has taken him around the world over the past 7 or 8 years are very compelling. We have never seen a book on restoration practice this wide in geographical scope, nor as comprehensive in detailing the actual work undertaken in the field, nor, indeed, one so engaged with the theoretical frameworks that inform the science of restoration ecology. Paddy traveled to South Africa, to Australia, New Zealand, Costa Rica, Mexico, Ireland, and of course, to the Midwest and elsewhere in the US. Paddy talked to everyone: the practitioners, the policy advocates, the scientists and the narrative is compelling because it is their voices we hear.

Paddy has become part of the restoration community and has played a useful role in recent debates within the Society for Ecological Restoration. For instance, he has been influential in shaping ideas about the “novel ecosystem concept” (ask me later!). But Paddy’s job is ultimately that of journalist — he visits, he gets acquainted with the situation, and he tells a story. And after he tells that story, what happens is up to us, his readers. I have recently been rereading a lot of Darwin for a class I am teaching. Once again I stumbled over Mr Darwin’s conclusion to his Voyage of the Beagle. There he wrote: “In conclusion, — it appears to me that nothing can be more improving to a young naturalist, than a journey in distant countries…. On the other hand, as the traveller stays but a short space of time in each place, his description must generally consist of mere sketches instead of detailed observation. Hence arises, as I have found to my cost, a constant tendency to fill up the wide gaps of knowledge by inaccurate & superficial hypotheses.” Written in 1839 Darwin appeared to be uncertain of the permanent value of flitting around, staying brief periods in each place. However, it is pretty clear that by 1859, those same travels had furnished the raw material for a revolutionary new view of nature. Now, I am not aware that Paddy wants to foment revolution, certainly not in our arena, but at the same time this seems like a very good moment for us to take stock and see what view of nature emerges in the coming decades. This book, I think, will be a useful tool in conversations about the future of restoration on a global scale. 
Paddy will be no stranger to us and will return in Spring to the Midwest at which time we can wrestle with the details on his reflections on restoration in our region — some will have very different views from his about our work here — and I suspect that our critical engagement with Paddy’s work will leave us all the better off. 
This is a night of great celebration — let us launch this book and fete the author. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Uses and Disadvantages of History for Ecological Restoration

On first glance the work of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), the German philosopher, might not seem especially helpful for restoration ecologists or indeed for anyone contemplating our relationship with the natural world. After all, his work supposedly challenges the foundations of Christianity and traditional morality. Nietzsche’s famous locutions concerning the “death of God” and his extensive discussions of nihilism should, however, be seen as his diagnosis rather than his cure. For Nietzsche our real cultural task is to overcome the annihilation of traditional morality, replacing it with something more life-affirming. The failure of our traditional precepts of value stem from the fact these express what Nietzsche calls the ascetic ideal. This ideal measures the appropriateness of human actions against edicts coming from beyond our natural and earth-bound life. The highest human values, as we traditionally assess them, came from a denial of our natural selves. Nature, in turn, is regarded as having no intrinsic value.

Thus Nietzsche even when he wrote in areas seemingly distant from traditional environmental concerns has useful things to say to us environmentalists. At times, in fact, his aphorisms are those of a poetic naturalist. In The Wanderer and His Shadow (1880, collected in Human, All too Human) he wrote “One has still to be as close to flowers, the grass and the butterflies as is a child, who is not so very much bigger that they are. We adults, on the other hand, have grown up high above them and have to condescend to them; I believe the grass hates us when we confess our love for it.” This is not, of course, to claim that Nietzsche is a traditional naturalist. His concerns are primarily about the thriving of human life, though in this he seems less like a traditional wilderness defender and closer to a contemporary sustainability advocate who seeks to locate a promising future for humans while simultaneously solving environmental problems.

See the full essay here

Mind-map of my notes for discussion on Wild Nature

The students have been reading Wilderness and the American Mind (R Nash).  The mind map allows us to hike through big terrain. (Click on map for larger view)

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Time-Traveler’s Guide to Future Vegetation: being a comment on debates over restoration and novel ecosystems

By Liam Heneghan

If an ecological manager from today was transported to the future and shown three sites: one minimally influenced by human activity (assuming that such a thing exists even now), one classically restored, and one that had been classified at the time of the manager’s departure as a novel ecosystem, the manager would not be able to distinguish based solely upon an inspection of their respective ecological properties one category of site from the other with certainty.
I will say a little more about the classification of each of these categories below, but for now all that you need to know is that a restored system, as I use the term here, has properties reflecting an attempt to apply a historical reference to rehabilitating a degraded habitat. A novel ecosystem, in contrast has a composition of species and properties reflecting marked anthropogenic influence for which there is no historical analogue.
Contemporary ecologists have for generations abandoned any expectations that natural systems, even those uninfluenced by human activity, are static. In the absence of human intervention ecosystems will change, according to some accounts at least in episodic ways, as one ephemerally stable condition gives way to the next. Each stage will be characterized by species combinations that are largely historically unprecedented, as paleoecologists have documented for systems since the Quaternary and even before. Attempts, therefore, to predict the future of “natural” communities are prone to error. The future is indeterminate. In this ecologists agree with an emerging philosophical consensus that the past is realer than the future, and that the present moment is realist of all.
Similarly, the future condition of a restored system will not be readily identifiable to today’s manager. If our time-traveler has with her the SER Primer on Restoration Ecology, an inspection of the expected properties listed there for an adequately restored system would confirm that this difficulty must be the case. Identifying which species of a future assemblage are indigenous — in restored systems the majority of species should be natives according to our contemporary standards — becomes more difficult the further into the future we project. Over sufficiently long time scales, evolutionary forces come into more pronounced play. Additionally, it is conceivable that species not at present within a biogeographic range of a system may become so in due course without human intervention. Thus naturally altered vegetation patterns may not easily distinguished from those caused by deliberate or inadvertent human introductions. Nor will it be especially helpful for the manager to confirm that all necessary functional groups are present in the future system, nor indeed that the system is appropriately integrated into a physical environment in a manner that helps sustain the sites’ populations, as these properties may be expected of all three site categories. Ultimately, the difficulty that our time-traveler will have in identifying today’s restoration efforts projected into the future arises because current restoration thinking acknowledges, as it should, that communities are dynamic, and sound contemporary management practice should not seek to curtail this dynamism.
The success of a restoration project being currently conducted could be evaluated in the future by measuring, as prescribed by the Primer, the system’s capacity to self-sustain to the same degree as some now long-forgotten reference ecosystem. Assuming that a system passes this particular test, the results will not discriminately useful, for a successfully functioning novel system, or a never-degraded system, should also be self-sustaining.
Novel systems, currently under management no matter how minimal (this absence of intensive management being a defining aspect of novel systems), would likewise be difficult to distinguish from sites under restoration management or merely undergoing long-term successional change. All are subject to the vagaries of dynamic but unpredictable change. One manager’s failed restoration project, or natural successional system, is another’s future novel system. Though we can, perhaps, assert some probabilistic differences between these categories, theoretically they can be indistinguishable. Of course, it may well be the case that any outcome in the future will be regarded by our time traveler as a “degraded system”, desperately in need of management. Though it is tempting to assume that all systems in the future will be novel one, however, those investigating the novel ecosystem paradigm resist, for the time being, that urge. Something that is everything is close to be nothing at all.
That our time traveling manager cannot distinguish these categories of sites based purely upon an inspection of the properties of each of them is true, I would say, even if this future is merely in one week’s time. It is true, perhaps, even for that future we are all strangely transported to each and every moment of our lives, as our successive nows are converted one by one into that series of thens that we can the past.

It is a useful thing, I think, for practical people to imagine a future, as we have just done, that bears the traces of their past actions. Whatever our inclination towards historical references may be, all ecological practitioners are, of course, essentially oriented towards the future and not the past only. But as we have seen there is a reasonable chance that one would not be able to distinguish the outcomes of three alternative histories from one another without being explicitly informed of those histories. This conclusion should not be interpreted nihilistically, nor should it demotivate us as a consequence. After adjusting herself to the unusual circumstances in which she finds herself the manager would inquire about those site histories, and based upon these histories she would have, no doubt, an assessment of the success of these projects. The point I am making here is that history matters. To make an slightly extravagant parallel: we shall all end up as corpses one day, and though it may matter little to us personally how we ended up that way, nevertheless it will be consoling if it matters to someone what the historical circumstances were, be they natural or suspicious, that led up to the ghastly moment of our demise.
Nature does not know its own history except, perhaps, through us. But both classical restoration and the novel ecosystem paradigm are both predicated upon a certain interpretation and implementation of history. This is obviously true for classical restoration defined by the SER primer as “the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed.” All those “re” and “de” words etymologically reveal their indebtedness to the past. The origins of the prefix “re”, for instance, refers to the original Latin, meaning ‘back’ or ‘backwards’.
The novel ecosystem concept’s indebtedness to history is less conspicuous. Hobbs, Higgs and Hall (the three H’s for the remainder of this paper) have defined novel ecosystem (their consensus definition) as “a system of abiotic, biotic and social components that by virtue of their human influence, differ from those that prevailed historically, having a tendency to to self organize and manifest novel qualities without intensive human management.” Note that this defines the novel system as a thing, not by a set of actions by which one might manage them (as was the case in defining restoration ecology).
At first glance one might be inclined to say that the novel ecosystem is an ahistorical concept. To put it another way this is history in a deficient-mode: history being conspicuous by its conscious absence. But there is more history involved in the identification of a novel system than might at first be obvious. Firstly, novel ecosystems depend upon historical analysis for their identification: they emerge from a contemplation of the analysis of the history of a site. A decision is made that these systems, with their novel components and properties, have certain emergent properties that have value and are therefore worth studying, conserving, and managing, albeit non-intensively.
There is no particular reason why management efforts connected with novel ecosystems and traditional restoration strategies cannot co-exist side by side, since managing a site according to the dictates of either paradigm may in fact produce theoretically indistinguishable long-term outcomes. In fact the advocates for the novel ecosystems concept are at pains to insist that the relevance of traditional restoration is not being called into question. However, another element of the historical analysis involved in the identification of novel ecosystems concerns the temporal characterization of supposed thresholds beyond which the attainment of traditional restoration goals becomes increasingly unrealistic. For instance, if the soil has be modified by anthropogenic nitrogen inputs beyond the point where the historical vegetation is likely to grow. Thus a site being treated as restorable might in fact be irredeemably a novel ecosystem. One man’s 300 years restoration project becomes another’s symptom of a breached threshold.
Finally, although novel ecosystems are defined by their lack of need for intensive management, nonetheless when a novel systems is providing conservation services and generally functions in a manner that is pleasing then a management regime may be instituted. As soon as this management is enacted the novel ecosystem is thereby governed by a historical reference system even if the historical moment being referred to is but a few moments in the past.

That the novel ecosystem remains enmeshed in history is conceded by its proponents. The “three Hs” acknowledge as much stating that “there is a gravitational pull in our discussions towards historical conditions. In acknowledging novel ecosystems, it is plain that this gravitational pull is sometimes very weak; it remains however, if only as a reminder that the past matters and has matters.” It’s turtles all the way down, where those turtles are history!
The challenge for us as restorationists therefore concern not simply the question of whether to use a historical reference system or not — we must — but rather it is to determine how much history do we need to, or even care to, consider. How should we use the the historical record? Or to put it another way, how much of history must we forget when we think about the future? This is something I will turn to in the next post.