Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Brief: mendings & metaphors

Hedden Park in Morris County, New Jersey consists of 389 acres of forest—predominately maple, beech, and witch hazel. Many years ago, during my awkward youth, it was a favorite after-school wandering place; in my awkward adulthood I came to frequent Hidden Valley.

These woods took a savage pounding when Hurricane Sandy rolled through in 2012. During my first visit home after the storm, the trunks fallen over the trails and gaping holes in the canopy were disheartening sights indeed. The most concentrated area of devastation lay on a hillside where every standing tree within an area of about half an acre was knocked over. Looking at it though an elevated distance (it lies in a depression within sight of a trail) was like looking out over the cusp of an impact crater. Seeing into the clearing from the path was (and still is) difficult—the dense shrubs and creepers prevent walkers from getting close unless they're prepared to crawl through the dirt and suffer the briers. All that's visible is the evidence of a rupture in the treescape.

Four days ago, on a different trail than I usually take, I followed a line of flattened weeds up the hill and found myself inside the hollow.

Here's what it looks like now: ecological succession at work.

I'm certain this image would deliver a greater impact with a "before" picture preceding it. We'll just steal one from a (serendipitously relevant) Atlas Obscura article to get an idea of what this scene would have looked like in October 2012.

In conversation I heard myself likening the scene to scab tissue forming over a wound—and immediately regretted it.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

the pristine, the natural, & the anthropogenic, pt. 1

Frederic Edwin Church, El Rio de Luz (1877)

There's a certain cast of person I've met—he tends to be a somewhat overweight grad student or adjunct humanities professor with a stubbly neck—whose lip curls slightly when I tell him about my interest in conservation and wilderness preservation. I give him credit for listening, at least: usually when I grouse to a stranger about land-use policy and diminishing biodiversity or share my frustration with our inadequate conceptions of "nature," a visible frost accrues on their corneas. But after hearing me out for a minute, this sanguine fellow raises a finger to remind me that "pristine" spaces in the world are a cultural fiction, adducing theorists like Baudrillard and scientific studies. He's eager to cite a 2017 piece in The Atlantic which summarizes the findings (published in the journal Science) of an exhaustive, cross-disciplinary inquiry into the natural history of the Amazon rainforest:
For more than a quarter-century, scientists and the general public have updated their view of the Americas before European contact. The plains and the Eastern forests were not a wilderness, but a patchwork of gardens, they’ve found. The continents were not vast uninhabited expanses but a bustling network of towns and cities. Indigenous people, we’ve learned, altered the ecology of the Americas as surely as the European invaders did. 
For more than 8,000 years, people lived in the Amazon and farmed it to make it more productive. They favored certain trees over others, effectively creating crops that we now call the cocoa bean and the brazil nut, and they eventually domesticated them. And while many of the communities who managed these plants died in the Amerindian genocide 500 years ago, the effects of their work can still be observed in today’s Amazon rainforest.... 
[C]ultivation eventually altered entire regions of the Amazon, the study argues. Levis and her colleagues found that some of these species domesticated by indigenous people—including the brazil nut, the rubber tree, the maripa palm, and the cocoa treestill dominate vast swaths of the forest, especially in the southwest section of the Amazon basin....
Some geographers, anthropologists, and indigenous people have all rejected the idea that the Americas were an untouched wildernessthe pristine myth,” as they call this tale—since the early 1990s. (Fifteen years ago, it was the topic of 1491, Charles C. Mann’s article in The Atlantic, later a best-selling book.) But this paper further belies that myth in one of the most biodiverse places in the continent, suggesting that humans did not just farm in the Amazon but helped determine some of its major ecological communities.