Up until the late twentieth century, art conservators would often try to restore a piece of art to its original condition, making it look as pristine as possible and often using the same materials and techniques that the artist of the time would have used.
There’s a problem with that.
The art has aged. To ignore its age is to ignore the piece’s history, the journey it has experienced from its conception to its place at a museum or in your home. The work has breathed, it has been broken, it has faded, it has been smudged, it has been damaged and covered up and damaged again. To remove all that experience and make it look brand new is to remove its life. After hundreds or thousands of years, it is ridiculous to think that anyone can or should take it back to day one of its existence.
We can apply the same philosophy to environmental restorations. The following will be an exploration of the sorts of problems we run into when we try to restore a degraded ecosystem to its former glory. Humanity, or erosion, or an invasive species has taken its toll, and you want to create a self-sustaining space for wildlife to flourish and grow. That's great, but how far back are you going? A hundred years? A thousand? A million? A matter that cannot be ignored is the role that time has played in the development of that environment. Life on land took millions of years to evolve, and it didn’t begin with a fish growing legs and crawling out of the ocean. It began at the cellular level.
After bacteria, the first land-dwelling organisms were likely fungi or lichen. That is not to say that a proper restoration begins with mushrooms, but what we know about evolution on land proves that a forest is not simply a collection of trees. If you’re looking to restore a degraded area, you have to look at what you’re starting with before you can think about an end goal. Shrubs and trees could only grow on land after millions of years had passed since that first fungus grew and perished, and after even more fungi and lichen and moss had grown and died and created a nutrient-dense base soil in which other organisms could grow and flourish. This is a drastic oversimplification of evolution, but it means that what you start with determines where you need to go. Is your soil nutrient-dense?
At the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Illinois, the process of restoration begins with GMO soybeans. In order to rid the land of invasive species, they must rid the land of all species, period. But if they just sprayed herbicide and left everything to die, then the soil would erode away to nothing in the wind and rain. To prevent this, Midewin plants GMO soybeans year after year, which have been genetically engineered to be sterile, so that the plants cannot spread themselves to other plots, and herbicide-resistant, so that it anchors the soil in place as the invasives die off. After a few years of this process to ensure that all the invasives deep beneath the ground have been killed, the soybean plants die and act as compost to keep the soil rich in nutrients. This is a time-consuming process, but necessary for the survival of the prairie.
Throughout this process, Midewin answers our question about time - not in terms of years, but in terms of people. They said, "Okay, we’re going to take this space back to before Europeans came to Illinois and brought all sorts of non-native species and destructive farming practices," and that’s a reasonable stance to take. What that stance implies, however, may be problematic. Evidence suggests that Native American use of fire may have played a role in the development of the prairie ecosystem, which requires routine burnings in order to thrive. It is easy to look at a plot of land and say, “I want to bring it back to before humans ruined everything,” when instead you should be taking humanity’s presence into consideration.
For anyone attempting to restore a natural space, the goal should not be a pristine, untouched landscape devoid of any human contact. Such an objective is neither realistic nor desirable, because placing a barrier between humanity and nature makes coexistence impossible, and might make people think it isn’t worth it to even try. A great example of coexistence between wildlife and humanity is the recent development of the Northerly Island prairie in Chicago.
Chicago sits on Lake Michigan, which places the city in the middle of a migration highway; migrating animals and insects such as birds and dragonflies try to avoid flying over open water as much as possible, so they cluster down the side of the lake and end up running into a concrete jungle of strange metal trees. Since birds have low depth perception and do most of their migrating at night, they mistake the lights of the city for the stars they typically navigate by, and so they crash into windows and die. But Chicago is such a small bump in the road compared to the journey ahead of them -- is there anything that the city should even bother doing? Yes! The first of these is turning the lights off at night, but we can get even more specific than that. A few years ago, the city established the Northerly Island prairie right in front of the Mccormick Place, a large structure with a glass exterior, and has since cut yearly bird deaths from the building in half by providing these migratory creatures with a place to rest and acclimate to their surroundings before flying on.
In addition to saving thousands of bird lives per year, Northerly Island has become a hidden gem for the city’s bikers and an ideal spot for Chicago’s schools to host field trips. Rather than trying to prevent human contact, a restoration should encourage locals and tourists to explore nature and learn more about it. Helping people realize that environmentalism is accessible to everyone, even them, is what makes people care about it and what can help get people to vote in favor of it. If you begin a restoration with a demonized sense of humanity, then it ultimately does more harm to environmentalism’s goals than benefit. Inviting humans into a restored space may compromise certain natural aspects of it, but it can also ensure that restoration’s survival.
Let’s talk about those natural aspects that might need to be compromised for the sake of humanity. Some of them are more obvious than others. The prairie ecosystem evolved to benefit from routine burnings, but not all prairie restorations should be burned. The Burnham Wildlife corridor in Chicago is located along Lake Shore Drive, a busy highway that borders Lake Michigan. Although the prairies in the Corridor are not thriving as well as they could be if they were burned, setting a fire right next to Lake Shore Drive might not be a good idea. Safety, however, is not the end of the conversation between a restoration and any community that might interact with it. Ideally, a restoration takes into account the presence of humans and works with it, rather than against it.
Installing a bike path, or hiking trail, or soccer field, or playground on or nearby a restoration might not be the first thing on an environmentalist’s mind when figuring out how to optimize a space for the sake of wildlife, but knowing one’s audience is crucial for the future survival of the space. What are people looking for, and how can this space help them find it without turning into a simple park with turf grass and a swing set? It might be pertinent to partner with a community organization to grow a garden, or to look at the surrounding communities' demographics so that any signage in the restoration can be made so that it is inclusive to multiple languages and backgrounds. People that are invited to experience a natural space will be more inclined to help maintain it in the future, which will contribute to the overall sustainability of what will, at first, be a labor-intensive project.
Speaking of sustainability, we’ve hit another roadblock. If you’re restoring an area, then that means you’re planting the native species that grow there naturally and won’t need too much help or maintenance once they’ve established themselves, right? Ideally, yes, but we have other factors we need to consider. We’ve already addressed the issues of time, degraded soil, invasive species, and human involvement, but we’ve ignored arguably the most pressing issue of the environmentalist movement: climate change. Since we started recording in 1880, the earth’s temperature has risen, on average, 1 degree Celsius. Who is to say that your native plants will still survive in that area? Already in Chicago, restoration developers are starting to look at plants from southern Illinois and bring them north to see how they fare and if they present more viable options for self-sustaining restorations in the long term.
That’s the beauty of a restoration - that it is self-sustaining. Taking a space and throwing mats of turf grass on it sets that community up for decades of constant watering and maintenance, whereas a restoration (once established) can be left to flourish in the climate it thrives in. Beyond maintaining its boundaries and weeding out invasives, a restoration should, theoretically, survive without any human interference, and that’s why more communities should take advantage of opportunities to create them. In the long term, they are more cost-effective than traditional parks, more educational, and provide habitats for local wildlife in the otherwise-dangerous conditions of urban and suburban life. Beyond that, even a small restoration can provide valuable ecosystem services such as climate regulation, soil infiltration, air purification, prevention of erosion, recreational experiences, and even pest control.
The problem, however, is that many people today suffer from the misconception that nature is only available to them in zoos or national parks. Years of bizarre American tradition have drilled into us the idea that parks are lawn grass, swing sets, and basketball courts, and nature is this vague, inaccessible entity that you can sometimes “escape to” if you’re lucky. No one should have to run away in order to access a natural space. Of course, this is easier said than done; I didn’t spend the bulk of this article explaining the complications of restorations for nothing, and what I’ve mentioned doesn’t even begin to cover the various obstacles that each specific ecosystem presents an environmentalist.
I’ve chosen to highlight the difficulties that come along with restoration to show how far we’ve come in terms of what we know about the world around us. What I’ve touched on here is not a list of failures, it is a testament to science’s ability to illuminate our ignorance and point us towards the questions that we need to ask. These are crucial years in the development of earth’s climate and our country’s mark on the environmentalist movement as a whole. We have the opportunity to reverse the misconceptions our society has of nature and promote a new philosophy of coexistence with it rather than a struggle against it, and it starts by reversing the damage we have caused.