Wednesday, August 24, 2005

A New Definition of Eden?

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My idea of a good "vacation" doesn't include beaches, relaxation or umbrella drinks. Mosquito netting and hiking boots are more my speed. This doesn't mean I'm adverse to the idea of "cultural travel," but I do feel that any such trip - a trip to eastern Europe, for example - should include some time in the rural or more remote landscapes of the region. I don't feel that I've experienced a place until I've seen the boundary between untended Nature and human activity.

Generally, I've been lucky. Excepting my European EuroRail adventure, a two-and-a-half month backpacking tour in the summer of 1996, my travels have taken me to sparsely settled territories. This is true of most of my travels within the United States and, to a lesser extent, Canada, but the most rewarding trips have been outside North America. The many months that I've spent in Central America - Costa Rica, Honduras and Nicaragua granted me the longest visits - and southern Africa touched me deeply and fundamentally informed my perspectives on human rights, charitable giving and environmentalism.

My upcoming "vacation," though, will likely resemble my European experience. Eleven days from now, I'll board a plane bound for Nagoya, Japan. Although the itinerary consists of three cities - Nagoya; Kyoto;, Tokyo - and only one rural side trip, I'm very excited. Because Japanese culture is so different from our own (the Japanese relationship to Nature, in particular), travel and observation anywhere in the country should prove richly informative.

An expatriate friend of mine describes the country as "one great bonsai." The dwarfing and shaping of trees suggests an obsession with control. Even standard Japanese pruning techniques seem harsh by North American standards. Whereas the conscientious American gardener may remove dead leaves or "cut back" aggressive growth, Japanese gardeners are regularly cutting, pinching and shaping their plants, apparently seeking the perfect form. As a teenager, I felt such efforts were tortuous and "unnatural." It was wrong, I believed, to force beauty upon an object when you should instead be looking for the inherent aesthetic worth.

Yet it is unfair to condemn a practice without understanding it first, and my bias for North American "natural aesthetics," born of our romantic faith in "wilderness," led me to an undergraduate class on Japanese culture. Wabi-sabi is a Kanji word used to describe the Japanese aesthetic of impermanence and imperfection. It means, in a general sense, imperfect beauty, but this definition is incomplete.

Wabi-sabi also includes a hint of melancholy - an under-appreciated concept in our egocentric, global culture - and is tied to Zen transcendence, the search for the simple life. Three essential truths embody wabi-sabi: "nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect." In other words, all the tending, all the editing and pruning, all the tying and directing, these are not considered acts of control, but of assistance, seeking not perfection, but a fleeting "rightness" instead.

After learning this, I was forced to edit my opinion of Japanese gardening. The practice no longer seemed so manipulative and the "soul" of the aesthetic, if you will, seemed as pure as the North American concept of "wildness." I came to view the two approaches - western "wilderness" and eastern "gardening" - as mutually exclusive, occupying opposing ends of the spectrum. As Marcus Hall writes in his dissertation, "American Nature, Italian Culture," "A gardener promotes culture on a natural landscape, whereas a naturalizer promotes nature on a cultural landscape." Can these two philosophies be married? Increasingly, I've become more interested in the intersection where these two distinct practices meet.

I'm not alone. Academics have debated questions of "gardening" versus "naturalizing," conservation versus preservation, and preservation versus restoration since at least the late 1980s. More recently, contemporary philosophers and artists have joined in the fray, drawing attention to these concerns and, to some extent, popularizing the discussion. A search on turns up a multitude of books on the subject; the majority of these are published after 1990. As fringe environmental movements like "deep ecology" have gained momentum, the pertinence of such questions has only increased.

Unfortunately, most commentators merely talk around the core issues. A heroic exception is the brave William Cronon. In his essay, "The Trouble With Wilderness," he champions the gardener:
"Only people whose relation to the land was already alienated could hold up wilderness as a model for human life in nature, for the romantic ideology of wilderness leaves precisely nowhere for human beings actually to make their living from the land."
Cronon has succeeded in getting many "greens," myself included, to ask tough questions of themselves, to examine their own inconsistencies and potentially unproductive actions.

I am a supporting member of The Wildlands Project. One of their stated goals is the formation of "MegaLinkages," or the physical connection of diverse ecosystems, across North America. These MegaLinkages should increase both genetic and species diversity, but they also invite some worthy questions. Once established, what will our human role in these corridors or linkages be? Are these preserves, areas of land off limits to the public? Or are they public parks? If they will be the latter, what sort of activities are allowed on these lands? Eric Higgs, in his excellent book, Nature By Design, fears the trap of wilderness dualism, which ultimately separates humanity from Nature.
"They embody a vision of the world in two parts, with protectionist rules for nature inside the park and exploitative rules for nature elsewhere. In a culture that accepts this dichotomy, people may exult in the wild beauty of the protected places and support parks with cash donations, but continue otherwise in a lifestyle that erodes the foundations of ecological integrity. The result, sooner or later, is a set of highly fortified islands of threatened wilderness surrounded by a sea of relatively heedless industrial activity."
(I should point out that Higgs and I both support The Wildlands Project and I believe the organization very thoughtful.) What is the alternative, then? If both Yellowstone National Park - representative of preservation and protection - and suburban sprawl - representative of egocentric consumption - ultimately lead to a similar erosion of our relationship to Nature, in what direction can we turn?

We might look east, to Japan. This may seem counter intuitive; Japan, after all, is associated with a relentless push for commercial whaling, overfishing, sprawl and, most notably, crowding. Those of us who followed the Kyoto Treaty (Protocol) brouhaha know that Japan produces many tonnes of CO2, well below the levels of the United States, but more than any European country. Furthermore, Japan's reliance on nuclear energy upsets many environmentalists.

But if we take a quick look at the numbers, we find some interesting patterns. Despite Japan's ranking 81st of 86 countries in biosphere reserves per capita (making the small size of the country less relevant) - compare this figure to Canada (20th of 86) and the United States (25th of 86) - the country ranks 2nd of 68 countries in biodiversity richness (ahead of both Canada and the U.S.) and 31st of 142 countries in endangered species protections (just behind Canada, but well ahead of the U.S.). Also curious is the shockingly low municipal waste generation; Japan produces 410 kgs person/year, whereas the U.S. produces 760 kgs and Canada, 640 kgs. The ecological footprint scores are also remarkable. Whereas the United States has an average score of 12.22 per person and Canada an average of 7.66, Japan's average is 5.94, lower than most European countries. Overall the trend is apparent. Japan offers little in the way of habitat protection, that most celebrated of North American conservation strategies, but instead incorporates the human element into the surroundings with minimal detriment. Ranked by percentage of "wilderness," Canada ranks 2nd out of 142 countries, the United States ranks 32nd. Japan doesn't even break 100, coming in 104th. Japan, a small, industrialized country with little protected "wilderness" pollutes less and has greater biodiversity than either Canada or the United States. What's going on here?

For an answer, I turn again to Eric Higgs, who writes,
"I prefer to think of a negotiated process between restorationists and ecological processes. If one presumes management to imply control, this will result in restorations that fail because of overdetermination and artificiality. At the other end of the spectrum, those who hold that ecological processes are endlessly adaptable and do not require management are simply avoiding a hard lesson: some human intrusions are irrecoverable without further human artifice, so that human agency is sometimes a good thing. Between these two extremes is a participatory - some might call it coevolutionary - process wherein restorationists are working in conjunction with ecological processes with skill, intelligence, and appropriate modesty."
In describing intelligent conservation (though he terms it ecological restoration), Higgs is effectively describing the practice of Japanese gardening. Some degree of control and manipulation is encouraged, but the hand is ultimately expected to be tender, to share the experience with the tree, plant or landscape. There is minimal distinction between the human contribution and "natural" processes. The wabi-sabi aesthetic celebrates that which is temporal, divine in its "naturalness," but not perfect. Wabi-sabi, then, is a celebration of humanity via Nature, and vice versa. The concept of Eden, so important in western conservation, is mostly irrelevant to the Japanese. There is no "original" garden to which we can return, no dominion granted by our Father up in the sky. Humans shape the eternal garden, day in and day out, part of the same force, ritualized though the practices may have become.

I've been preoccupied by these ideas this week, especially with the Pleistocene Park idea being bounced about in the media. We North Americans need to decide what it is we want. Too much focus on preservation will likely result in unfortunate results, and perhaps even accelerate the decline of biodiversity. But we also need to decide how to handle our desire to "restore" Eden. Where do we draw the line? Should we really spend many millions of dollars introducing African species to our plains in an effort to "return" to a 30,000 year old ecosystem? Is it any more sensible to aim for healthy populations of large North American mammals circa 1900? 1850? 1492? Can we move past Judeo-Christian ideals to advance an agenda that maximizes biodiversity and strives for lower human impact, or will we follow Europe's lead? Progressive though the Europeans may be, healthy ecosystems are few and far between in that fragmented part of the globe.

Admittedly, Japan is not without sin - their "gardening" would do well by an injection of wildlife biology knowledge, a field which isn't much established in Asia - but they seem to have had some success marrying humanity to Nature, even in contemporary life. In part a result of religious belief, in part a result of aesthetic prominence, Japan's approach deserves a more careful examination by our philosophers and biologists. I remain quite excited about the upcoming trip.

Photo credit: copyright, Uwe R. Zimmer


Updog said...

The threat of invasive species also calls the the logic of wilderness preserves into question. If left alone, invasives can unbalance and even destroy ecosystems. If managed, the area ceases to be 'wild' and enters the spectrum of human influence.

Hungry Hyaena said...'s a very interesting question. Many people dismiss it offhand, though, citing the unknown variables of the future. Even some "restorationists" claim that minimal interference is the most sensible approach, letting climatic evolution, glaciation and other "natural" processes tend the garden.

While such arguments have merit, the hands off approach seems rather defeatist and fatalistic to me.