“A science of land health needs, first of all, a base datum of normality, a picture of how healthy land maintains itself as an organism.”
-- Aldo Leopold, 1941.
But what is normality? What is natural? Can we hope to describe early conditions with reasonable confidence? As we have seen California’s landscape has changed constantly. But as we also know, a threshold was passed in the last few centuries when people began to alter the land in completely novel ways, addings new factors such as intensive hunting and fishing technologies, industrial toxins, huge population growth, agrobusiness-level water redistribution, logging, fencing, and mass carbon-release. Is there still a level of habitat health that we can look for in California’s past landscapes that can help us to survive in our current changing world? Is there a way we can learn to live with change? One recent way of thinking is called “relocalization,” developed as an economic vision that emphasizes your own local community over the vast abstract globalization trend, but that could also work to relate people to their own local natural community as well.
Relocalization seeks to increase local renewable energy sources (such as roof-top solar arrays), farmer’s markets, small local businesses, reduced needs for long-distance transportation -- in other words, sustainable self-sufficient local economies (see relocalize.net, localharvest.org, and look into the Post Carbon Institute in Sebastopol, founded by Julian Darley who coined the term relocalization). Including a healthy local native ecosystem in this plan can only benefit the community that lives in it. The challenge will be to define what a healthy natural community is, and our relation to it.
Studying the past in all its diversity we have certainly not revealed all the secrets of Old California, but we have found patterns of natural variability in the landscape, a range of historic variation within which we can work towards restoring the land. Habitat restoration can be difficult, however -- it took 5,000 years or more to create a habitat, and we have no blueprints to follow as to how the original communities developed (Zedler et al. 1992). We often do not take into account the rare and extreme events that influenced the species now present or absent. Restoring the processes that shape the land, such as fire or flood, may in places be more fruitful than trying to bring back a single fixed habitat. Continued attention is needed, and more long-term information.
The National Park Service, in trying to restore such habitats as the giant sequoia groves of Sequioa-Kings Canyon and Yosemite National Parks used the definition of “natural,” as “the dynamic conditions that would exist if the dominant Euro-American culture had never arrived, but Native Americans had continued to use the landscape” (Stephenson 1999). But unless we wish to place ecosystems in museum-like setting, this will not allow us to live on and with the land everywhere, outside of parks. The fact is that people from all over the world have moved to California, and today we face challenges of how to “fit in” with our precious water resources, changing climates, dwindling biodiversity, ever-present wildfires, and pollution. I believe we can gain lessons from the past, especially the ways Native people lived with the land.
I was scolded by a wildlife biology professor for using the term “balance” when talking about ecology. He tried to explain to me that there is no balance, only shifting relationships in a disequilibrium, and that “the balance of nature” is a misleading concept. I believe he was trying to disavow his students of simplistic notions of a static idealism about how ecosystems function. But ecologic balance makes no sense when we leave ourselves out of the picture.
Many Indigenous people consider balance a key spiritual concept in their own relationship to the land, and I think they may have been very keen observers on this point. Mongolians use the word tegsh, “being in balance,” implying an ideal life of acting in moderation and in consideration of the effects of one’s actions on others and the world (Sarangerel 2001). Many Indigenous people see the concept of balance as an awareness of relationship and interdependence; too much of one thing can lead to imbalance and ill health.
One problem I see is the forgetfulness of the past, a creeping skepticism -- many do not believe that California ever had such a wealth of wildlife and plant resources. An almost nihilistic worldview can develop that denies California the capacity for huge biodiversity and great abundance -- “I don’t see it now so it must never have existed.” But this is a dangerous attitude, as it sets very low goals for our future. Habitat restoration can be about restoring our own ways of living in nature, in balance.
Forest ecologist Scott Stephens discussed the need for having a long-term philosophy for working with fire in the forests. “Once you’ve got a system away from the high severity fires, you have to have a long-term philosophy of putting fire back into that system every 10 or 12 years. Because if you don’t do that, we’re going to be back in the same place in a hurry. I’m afraid that there’s this notion that, after 20 years of work, we’ll have the problem licked. That’s absurd. You can do some good work in 20 years, but this problem is never going away” (Ochert 2003).
Looking at the situation not as a problem but as a lifestyle might be part of the answer. That is what I have found living next to a wetland that needs long-term, regular work to keep it healthy for the native fish and amphibians that inhabit it. One-time fixes won’t do here. Living with the wetland day to day, not in a frantic way, but in a relaxed manner with no deadlines has succeeded well for me and the wetland. Working with changing landscape processes such as fire as a partner, not as an enemy, could be a natural part of living.
One way of living that Native people can teach everyone is about time. And patience. In trying to work with Plumas National Forest the Maidu tried to explain to the federal employees that they foresaw a plan that would take 99 years to implement in regenerating the forest understory. At first that did not fit in with the mindset of annual budgets, intricate administrative regulations, and short-term economically-driven management policies. But to their credit the Forest Service worked that long schedule into the plan (Little 2002).
Long-term management should be the goal for all of us. All too often, however, we move about the country and never stay in one landscape long enough to begin to deeply connect with it. I recall how my husband and I discussed whether Least Bell’s vireos might be able to re-colonize our ranch riparian land with an agency biologist. We explained our concerns about future surrounding water development and urban growth, and she seemed to empathize. But then she turned and laughed, “Well, by the time all that development happens it’ll be time to move on anyway, right?”
Moving away from the problem was not the option we wanted to hear. In my own personal history I have done enough moving across states following jobs, so I realize that asking people to stay put is not always the answer. But I also understand that wherever you live you can gain an understanding of the local land quickly, within weeks. You can help out on local restoration projects, get involved in conservation efforts, learn some history of the place, take some hikes. Restoration can be reconnection, rebalancing.
In parts of Great Britain “heritage groups” have formed, where “enthusiastic amateurs” and local residents get together to uncover, record and celebrate the history, landscape, architecture, and wildlife of their community -- in the process they discover more about their home and themselves. (See for example www.leics.gov.uk/community_services/press_release/2002)
Most towns have parks or public lands where similar groups could be organized. And there is always your backyard to get to know better -- what did it look like 1,000 years ago? How can you live in balance with it? Anyone can hone their powers of observation to begin seeing the changes that gradually (or sometimes quickly) change our home ground and climate -- kids can do this, non-scientists, anyone who is curious about the past and might want to know what the future will be like.
The guiding principles of the Klamath Tribes could do us all well (modified from Wolf 2004):
Permanence -- Remembering our history and ancestors, thinking and planning for many future generations.
Collaboration -- Working with our neighbors and community to bring back California landscapes to their fullest potential.
Sense of Place -- Getting to know our land better, allowing it to inform our identity.
Ecological Health -- The land can again be a living mosaic of healthy and abundant plant and animal communities.
Balance -- Protecting these natural communities while generating a sound economy. “We will not take more than the land can endure.”
Healing -- “When we heal the land, we also heal people.”
To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.
—Arundhati Roy, The Cost of Living
One way to open your eyes to unnoticed beauty is to ask yourself, “What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?”
—Rachel Carson, Silent Spring