People, Nature, and Green Infrastructure

I shall list explicitly in a future post all of the elements of what I call “infrastructure.”  For now I want to consider one of the outliers: wilderness.

Most readers will grant, I imagine, that infrastructure includes government-provided roads, water supply, and sewers.  Some may argue that I should not include energy supply and telecommunications, because these systems are typically managed by the private sector; but I shall include them.  Monuments and parks—Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell and the Eiffel Tower in Paris, for example—also qualify easily, as I shall write, because they structure our views of the world, our understanding of where we are, and even how we think of ourselves. 

Wilderness is more difficult. 

Henry David Thoreau famously wrote in Walking, penned in 1861 but published after his death, “…in Wildness is the preservation of the world.”  I take his meaning quite literally: We must have places in the world where humanity’s touch remains light if we are to survive as a species and continue to reside in this world.  It is a perspective that photographers Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter conveyed viscerally in influential coffee-table portfolios published by the Sierra Club. (Ansel Adams and Nancy Newell, This is the American Earth, 1960; Elliot Porter, In Wildness is the Preservation of the World, 1962)  It is an argument forcefully made by Harvard naturalist Edward O. Wilson (The Future of Life, 2002) Adam’s images in particular—in the Yosemite Valley and the Tetons are among the most memorable for me—arguably spurred the rise of environmental consciousness in the United States as Sierra Club calendars graced college dorm rooms across the nation.

Set aside—for now, at least—consideration of whether “wildness” and “wilderness” are interchangeable ideas; Henry David seems to use them as such.  The evidence suggests, however, that the sort of place he had in mind could be experienced without making a trek to Yosemite.  He never traveled farther from home than Lake Ontario, and the Maine woods were probably the closest he ever came to wildness.  Granted, the woods in the mid-19th Century were less the habitat of loggers and snowmobilers than they are today, but New England had already seen 200 years of European settlement and native Americans had cleared an farmed throughout region for much longer.  As historian William Cronon convincingly explains, the landscape of nature that Thoreau would have known was far from free of human influence. (Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, 1983)  During his famous two years on the shores of Walden Pond, Thoreau was never beyond the reach of the train’s whistle.

Thoreau’s interest was primarily intellectual.  He wrote that we need the idea wildness to nurture our spirit, that “forest and wilderness” are the source of “the tonics and barks which brace mankind.” (Walking, Part 2)  The perspective separates humanity from the rest of “nature,” as though we are not a part of it.  A rich literature explores the origins and evolution of that view, but I will not go there now.

Suffice it to say that humanity and the other elements of our world are inseparable, and science is now giving us a functional understanding of the essential services we get from natural systems.  Ecology’s initial stirrings among such Thoreau contemporaries as Humboldt, Darwin, and Wallace is now branching into such sub-disciplines as landscape ecology and systems ecology—even urban ecology—and yielding the knowledge to devise management tools.

For lack of a better term, many people refer to this type of infrastructure as “green.”  (See, for example, the admirable book by Mark A. Benedict and Edward T. McMahon, Green Infrastructure: Linking Landscapes and Communities, 2006)  For me, there is no distinction to be made based on color or the underlying science used to develop and manage the essential hardware and software providing underlying structure and essential support for our economy and society.

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