Toby Hemenway – “Native Plants: Restoring to an Idea”

This is a very smart, thoughtful post by Toby Hemenway:

The wooded hillside on rural Oregon where I once lived was thick with 40- to 120-year-old Douglas fir and hemlock. But as I walked these forests, I noticed that scattered every few acres were occasional ancient white-oak trees, four to six feet in diameter, much older than the surrounding conifers and now being overtopped by them. I realized that in these ancient oaks I was seeing the remnants of the oak savanna that had been maintained for millennia by fire set by the original inhabitants, the Calapuya people. The fir forest moved in when the whites arrived and drove off the Calapuya, and began suppressing fire. So what I was seeing was a conifer forest created by human-induced fire-suppression, and it had replaced the oak savanna that had been preserved by fires set by people. Which was the native landscape? Both were made by humans. If we say, let’s restore to what existed before humans altered it, we’d need to go back to birches and willows, since humans arrived as the glaciers retreated.

The whole article is great, and connects a lot with the themes of this blog.  It prompted a whole little stream of thinking for me that I’ll try to lay out here (warning: somewhat unedited/raw).

One of my starting points or foundational beliefs is that people are always affecting, and therefore managing, landscapes.  And what I like most about this article is, it really drives home the point that we’re always managing based on our ideas, projections, worldviews, etc.  As intensively culture-driven keystone animals, there’s no way around it.  The question is, once I’m conscious that I’m doing that, which ideas do I want to project?  Which future landscape do I want to live and work towards?

Because here’s another consequence of what Toby’s talking about.  Landscapes are always changing.  So “no management” – which people often portray as a responsible, let-nature-take-its-course approach – moves landscapes forward on their current successional trajectory determined by their climate, landform, plant communities, and disturbance history.  And that means, in a world of human-affected ecosystems, that it’s someone else’s management decisions that are guiding succession, not “nature’s” alone.  And those someone’s in the past may not have had the best interests of the future generations in mind in their decisions (see: mining, mountaintop removal).

Speaking of which, American Chestnut reforestation in Appalachian surface mines is a great example of proactive management towards a horizon habitat, rather than passive do-nothing land use.  I think we need more big-scale thinking and doing like this (and like the urban edible corridor idea that Toby describes later in the article) that doesn’t accept scarcity and resource depletion as an inevitable future.  Instead, we should see it as one of many possible outcomes of our present-day management decisions.

(Other threads from Toby’s article to pick up in future posts: the “native/invasive” conversation; urban ecosystems; and the concept of “natural” and “artificial” landscapes.)

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3 Responses to Toby Hemenway – “Native Plants: Restoring to an Idea”

  1. Mark says:

    Yes! Thank you for featuring this on the blog. I remember when I first read it I thought to myself how Toby had almost perfectly articulated the ideas I had been formulating in my head around native plants and ecosystem regeneration… I appreciate your added thoughts. It’s keeping the ball rolling on my end.

    I’m preparing a presentation on this subject titled “Becoming Indigenous: From Preservation to Regeneration” for a local native plant / land conservancy advocacy group. My hope is to plant a seed within their dialogue about re-framing or transmuting the lens we view landscapes through. I’d love to speak with you further once I outline my thesis.

  2. Pingback: “Uncontacted People” and Land Use Choices | Renewing the Commons

  3. Pingback: Invasive Species Paradigm Shift Underway | Renewing the Commons

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