What is wilderness?

Image by Rama V | flickr.com

Image by Rama V | flickr.com

Magenta fireweed flowers under a blue northern Alberta sky a stunning backdrop for oil company propaganda (I don’t remember which company). The oil company claimed this was restored land after oil drilling had finished but northern Alberta isn’t a homogeneous field of fireweed. Fireweed, a pioneer plant, is part of the first step in a succession, that, if conditions are right, might result in the northern Alberta ecosystem that was originally stripped away. Maybe the oil company is doing more to restore these ecosystems and just chose to film in a swath of fireweed because it is pretty. I don’t really know, but it did get me thinking about our meddling in the natural world.

Meddling with our environment is what people do, yet we maintain an idealized view of an untouched nature out there somewhere. Emma Marris in Rambunctious Garden suggests, “We imagine a place, somewhere distant, wild and free, a place with no people and no roads, and no fences and no power lines, untouched by humanity’s great grubby hands, unchanging except for the season’s turn.” She goes on to point out that if such a place ever existed, it no longer does.

Thinking hypothetically, if we've crossed a threshold where we’ve damaged the earth so badly that it can no longer support a natural ecosystem, can we recreate wilderness? Well, not from scratch. Closed biospheres have been an active area of research since humans first ventured into space and still is. The experiment conducted in Biodome 2 in the early 1990’s demonstrated that we can’t yet create a complex, human-sustaining world in a bubble. As Rebecca Reider describes in Dreaming the Biosphere, Biodome 2, “…is not simply a garden in a greenhouse; it is, perhaps, the most highly engineered wilderness in the world.” To create this wilderness, several working ecosystems were carefully crammed into a small space. Everything from rainforest trees to buckets of swamp dirt to hummingbirds and more were sourced and shipped in. Then eight humans stepped inside and sealed the door, becoming stewards of this created world.

The eight humans were necessary because without constant human intervention the engineered ecosystems would evolve into something else. Within the sealed bubble of Biodome 2, growing pains included acid rain from high carbon dioxide levels to low oxygen as curing concrete bound to it. While the Biodome 2 sealed experiment ran, it never became stable, and ultimately doors were opened because toxic gases were building up inside. Maybe, eventually, someone will figure out how to build a stable ecosystem in a bubble big enough to include us, but for now we need to work with the wilderness we have.

Since we’ve meddled in every ecosystem on the planet, perhaps we can take a step back and plan our meddling to leave space for nature. Ecosystems change; that’s always happened, but change needs to happen at nature’s pace and there needs to be room for nature to be complex, as complexity is the path to resilience. Emma Marris argues that we need a new way of seeing nature that includes everything from old growth forests to the weeds that push up through asphalt. With this view, the mossy ecosystem erupting from a concrete crack counts as wilderness.

In my view, one solution (as there are an infinite number of possible solutions) is to make more space for nature let a pocket of lawn go wild, plant berry-producing bushes for the birds or flowers for the bees. Nature can flourish in little spaces.

This article was originally posted via Sustainable Collective, which has since joined forces with The Starfish Canada.