Separate | Small | Singular

Drawing Boundaries

Before moving on from the stream-of-consciousness theorizing of my last few posts as I promised, I think it could use a quick recap. (Skip past the six bullet points if you’ve already had your fill! But it does lead in to what follows.)

  • The concept of nature apart from humanity has more reality in the mind than on the ground, given 1) how thoroughly we’ve transformed the planet, and 2) that arguably we can’t be separate from nature if we came from it in the first place. Taken to their extremes, these would mean respectively that “nothing is natural” and “everything is natural”—functionally the same thing.

  • These two claims are often used to portray pristine nature as having limited value and relevance.

Rainforest of Tijuca National Park, Rio de Janeiro. Protected and experienced as a “wilderness” area despite having been re-planted 150 years ago and today facing numerous pressures from the surrounding city.

Rainforest of Tijuca National Park, Rio de Janeiro. Protected and experienced as a “wilderness” area despite having been re-planted 150 years ago and today facing numerous pressures from the surrounding city.

BUT:

  • The “nothing is natural” claim would require an impossible-to-define point in human history when nature suddenly disappeared.  (When exactly did humans technically start changing the climate?) Naturalness is a matter of degree.

  • And—even if “nothing is natural” and non-human nature is purely a cultural construct, cultural constructs by definition have cultural importance. The importance of the image of nature to our well-being has been widely demonstrated.

  • And—even if the idea weren’t important, the second, “everything is natural” argument can be turned around to show that the idea doesn’t even have to be important:  it’s as “natural” and justifiable as anything else.  

SO:

  • Ultimately it doesn’t really matter whether nature is part of us, we’re part of it, or some degree of either one. We can justify preserving what we perceive as pristine if we decide it’s the right thing to do—for us, for other species, or both. It’s a matter of values, reinforcing innate biophilic tendencies, not of philosophy or fact; even if the facts are clear to everyone (far from the case), the bigger challenge is getting enough of us to agree on what that “right thing” is.

Needless to say I believe that right thing to be some degree of separation, and from here on I’ll use “nature” and “natural” to mean “relatively free from obvious human impacts.” (Still loaded terms, but for those who don’t believe in using them without scare quotes, hopefully less loaded than before.) That separation obviously has a built-in spatial component—it requires clear physical boundaries—and that’s my segue back to the worldviews.

From Edges to Islands

All of the worldviews deal with edges, not just in terms of the fractured representational style but the places they represent. I led into the human-nature relationships discussion with depictions of sharp contrasts between nature and civilization (Hidden Valley, Páramo and Lagoon), and that type of edge is the most directly relevant to that discussion. But edges are tied to the preservation theme even when civilization’s out of the picture. Nowadays, whether or not they’re human-created, they almost certainly define endangered “islands” of nature. Edges imply not only separation but relative smallness and isolation.

Edges on the slopes of Mt. Taranaki, New Zealand—nature-meets-agriculture and nature-meets-nature.

Edges on the slopes of Mt. Taranaki, New Zealand—nature-meets-agriculture and nature-meets-nature.

Harbour Island  (watercolor on paper, 18”x18”). Inspired by Rangitoto Island, Auckland, New Zealand—a city-nature edge overlaying a natural land-water edge.

Harbour Island (watercolor on paper, 18”x18”). Inspired by Rangitoto Island, Auckland, New Zealand—a city-nature edge overlaying a natural land-water edge.

The shrinking extent of the earth’s remaining natural areas enters both sides of the human-nature debate: on one hand it compels us to draw boundaries around what’s left, but on the other it’s used to justify the futility of obsessing over those remnants. Though I don’t subscribe to the second perspective, both of them actually correspond somewhat to my two aforementioned motivations for creating the worldviews:

  1. concern over the fragility of natural remnants, and

  2. the empowering sense of control I feel in experiencing a given natural environment from edge to edge, in other words the very smallness and fragility of those remnants.  

I say “somewhat” because #2 doesn’t mean at all that I’m advocating further shrinking of those remnants (or would oppose enlarging them)—quite the contrary—but rather that I experience a small and strange silver lining in the currently precarious state of things. So those motivations may seem contradictory in terms of how I feel about that current state of the environment, but not in terms of what I think we should do about it.  

I think of my “protective impulse” as resolving the contradiction between the desire to preserve nature and the desire to feel a sense of control over it because protectiveness is a form of control. (Similar to the way trying to keep a place untouched by humans is itself a human act.) Yes it’s treating nature like a precious object, more valuable than ever for the very reason that there’s so little of it left, which can distract us from other crucial environmental issues and has troubling social parallels. But I think it gives me a small glimmer of pleasure and hope—as precious objects can do—within a more general feeling of despair.

This could well be just my personal worldview in the wider sense of the term. But I wonder if it could also help inform a larger environmental ethic of concern (if not alarm) tempered by a conviction that the flip side of our domination of the planet is that we do still have some control over its fate (and ours). For a short time at least.

The Nature of Islands

More to come later on how attitudes toward the human-nature relationship relate to ideas about space and scale. For now though, I’ll keep the focus on islands—specifically in the traditional sense of being defined by water. Island nature tends to be rare and endangered not only because of islands’ relative smalless: particularly in the case of distant volcanic islands, eons of isolation have produced high levels of endemism, and topographic relief has created dramatic variety of environments and their associated species within islands (ecological “sub-islands”) as well as between islands and other landmasses.

Harsh but delicate volcanic alpine landscape of Haleakala Crater, Maui.

Harsh but delicate volcanic alpine landscape of Haleakala Crater, Maui.

Remnant patch of Maui’s little-remaining native cloud forest at the other side of Haleakala Crater.

Remnant patch of Maui’s little-remaining native cloud forest at the other side of Haleakala Crater.

Both despite and because of geographical isolation, the natural rarity of these species and ecosystems has been magnified many-fold by human pressures: not used to outsiders, island species are particularly susceptible to invaders (human and non-human). And on top of that threat, as on continental mountains, the finely-tuned climatic conditions of islands will be hit particularly hard by global warming.

The worldviews I’ll describe in the next few posts capture the precious yet precarious nature of islands—special and distinct yet no longer protected by expanses of water. Some of the islands are real, but idealized in order to emphasize what’s still left and reflect some of what’s already been lost; others are imaginary but inspired by real places. Here I’m introducing a few of those real-life islands, some that have already inspired worldviews and some that soon will. Enjoy!

Darren

Low, scrubby lowlands of Lord Howe Island, Australia, with Mt. Gower (far right) in the distance across the lagoon.

Low, scrubby lowlands of Lord Howe Island, Australia, with Mt. Gower (far right) in the distance across the lagoon.

Mist forest at the top of Mt. Gower, an ecosystem unique to Lord Howe. Well-protected and mostly intact, but it won’t survive a drying climate.

Mist forest at the top of Mt. Gower, an ecosystem unique to Lord Howe. Well-protected and mostly intact, but it won’t survive a drying climate.

Semiarid lowlands of San Cristóbal Island, Galápagos.

Semiarid lowlands of San Cristóbal Island, Galápagos.

Saturated treeless highlands of San Cristóbal. The habitat type is rare to begin with, and the few bits that have escaped cultivation are highly degraded.

Saturated treeless highlands of San Cristóbal. The habitat type is rare to begin with, and the few bits that have escaped cultivation are highly degraded.

Semiarid coastline of La Gomera, Canary Islands.

Semiarid coastline of La Gomera, Canary Islands.

Rare and endangered  laurisilva  (temperate cloud forest) in the La Gomera highlands.

Rare and endangered laurisilva (temperate cloud forest) in the La Gomera highlands.