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. 


  1. Will read the book now that you gave it such high marks!! Lolamarina

  2. Will read the book now that you have given it such a glowing review! Lolamarina