We live in a society that replaces craftsmanship and beauty with functionality. We don’t raise animals. We produce them by the tens of thousands inside walls, and then we thaw and heat them according to the instructions on the package. We don’t build cathedrals. We put churches in strip malls. Most red barns are sided with sheet metal. Most new houses are sided with vinyl. I think this cheapness has metastasized into our view of the natural world and ecological restoration as a practice. We should raise our standards, and consider beauty and complexity and what they add to human experience.
Restoration seeks to recover aspects of a natural system that have been lost through some form of disturbance, usually resulting from human activities. Ask a scientist to provide a rationale for ecological restoration. The response will likely touch on the carbon cycle, water quality, or perhaps the need to support a particular imperiled or commercially important species (usually fauna)—all functions. Technicians and graduate students can measure these things. In many cases, our health and our agricultural systems depend on them. Caring about functions is straightforward and defensible.
On a recent journey into the desert, I drove with the fault block Steens Mountain to my right, still capped with a bright mantle of snow. To my left were hills rising into the Sheepshead Mountains, gray with sagebrush and streaked with dark screes of basalt. For a stretch of miles, the road marks the contrast between relatively intact and altered landscapes. A burn scar extends from the road up the flanks of Steens Mountain. The scar contrasts against the gray surroundings, dominated by green new growth and gold dry stems of vigorous and exotic crested wheatgrass that the Bureau of Land Management seeded to restore range production after the fire. It reminded me of the plantings of warm season grasses that are often equated with restoration in the Midwest. The complexity of what follows destruction exceeds that of the denuded landscape, but falls far short of what was lost. We can measure some of this shortfall easily enough by counting species, and we do that all the time. The problem is that we fall into the trap of trying to justify the need for species in terms of function, declaring victory if greater diversity relates positively to the functioning of the system or if some species can serve some specific purpose. We soldier on, eyes down and walking briskly, when diversity is negatively related to function. It sometimes is!
I don’t give a damn. Species diversity has intrinsic value. It is something we can enjoy. It can occupy our senses and our minds and enrich our lives. Maybe it comes down to peoples’ philosophies about life, whether life is about achieving goals and meeting bottom lines, or whether life is more what we make of it—more what we experience. I tend towards the latter. I was driving into the desert to walk the buttes and see what was there to see, and I had existed through the preceding days directed towards the purpose of having a chance to explore. I read through dozens of vignettes about existence in a few hours of overland walking.
Perhaps many scientists’ and managers’ concepts of restoration are so simplistic, because that’s all we can hope for, given how thoroughly we exploit the land and foul the Earth. How could we possibly fix it? Maybe we can just weep for what we lose, or maybe some of us shelter ourselves by shutting ourselves away from an ailing friend in nature. I still think we should try for better. Restoration can’t just be about function. It has to consider our imaginations. It has to consider artists, wanderers, and wonderers. If that means in some cases people do or don’t get their reassuring biomass, whoop-de-doo for them, but we already have enough cheap crap as it is.