Chaos, Restoration, and the Spirit
Imagine a world in which technology has become so sophisticated and miniaturized that it begins to disappear as a physical presence with its own intrusive characteristics, and becomes more and more a sort of omnipresent invisible background magic that feels natural, classical, simple, and adapted to our bodies, minds, and culture. It will be some decades yet before most of the world has passed through the stage of early industrialization, and it is the job of the developed world to ease the transition, to help more backward economies to leapfrog the old smokestack and mass labor stages of development and go directly to a biocybernetic post-industrial prosperity. But in the developed world we can already see a new technological, industrial, and economic constellation beginning to form.
As mass manufacturing becomes more and more efficient and robotized, and as the cost of technology falls inexorably by comparison to the cost of human time, the manufacturing sector of the economy will undergo a relative shrinkage, though it will remain, like the utilities, a cash cow. The new areas of profit will be in service, design, education, entertainment, customized small-run manufactures, arts, crafts, tourism, science as entertainment, medicine, and religion. The economy will become more like a theater.
Whenever a new gadget comes on the market it begins as a large, obtrusive object which its owner will often display out of pride and the desire to impress. Later it will become more sophisticated, more chic, and will begin to sprout dozens of fancy features, so that the panel of a VCR or the dashboard of a car or the controls of a blender approach the complexity of an airplane cockpit; there will be fifteen levels between “whip” and “liquefy.” But then the technology will begin to hide itself behind the paneling of a wall or closet, or behind the tinted windows of the luxury car, at first for reasons of exclusiveness and snobbery. Finally, though, a mature technology aims toward discreetness, user-friendliness, simplicity and classicism, so that the gadget becomes as obvious in function as a hammer, as unobtrusive as a hidden sound system, as beautiful as a violin, as intuitive as a good icon-driven disk operating system, and as robust and cheap as an ordinary telephone. It and its user will have educated each other’s taste.
What we need to aim for is a technology that has all these virtues not just for human beings but for the rest of nature as well–that will fit natural ecosystems as a good tennis racket fits the human hand. In other words, culture, art, and nature will not, as in the world of the industrial revolution, be adapted to technology, but technology will be sinuously and unobtrusively adapted to culture and nature. “Functional” will no longer mean “conforming to the technology” but rather “conforming to human and natural needs”–including our needs for beauty and comfort, and nature’s needs for biochemically complex and open-ended environments. The products of industry will be small, light, multipurpose, intelligent, cheap, charming, and recyclable. The business corporation will become a campus, a thinktank, a theater, playing out styles of life and being in alternate futures. Advertising and promotion will merge with product development, as with the Nissan-Infiniti design/publicity team or GM’s highly successful Saturn campaign.
Industry will go underground. It will be increasingly automated, eliminating the repetitive soul-destroying labor that Marx rightly condemned. It will tend toward the economic ideal of the closed system, so that all output is either goods or basic constituents of the environment, and nothing is wasted; and input will tend, because of the twin economic drivers of commodity scarcity and materials science, to be the most common and available materials there are on the planet–sand to make silicon, biomass to make carbon compounds, clay to make ceramics, air and water to lubricate the system and be returned unchanged, and sunlight. The ocean, in which every element in the universe is dissolved, will become the major source of raw materials. We will use seawater irrigation, ocean farming, biotechnology and nanotechnology to mine the seas. When we mine the land we tend to damage and poison it. But mining the ocean will simultaneously purify it and return to the land the matter that pours from it, in such rivers as the Amazon and the Mississippi, in millions of tons every second.
Recently some long-awaited scientific/technological projects have begun to show signs of bearing fruit. The many disappointments with laser fusion and cold fusion have made us cynical about promises of cheap fusion energy; but patient research now seems to be on the verge of success. The first better-than-breakeven Tokamak will come on line in 2005. Most of the technical problems are already solved in principle–with ceramic tiles borrowed from space shuttle technology, superconducting magnets, new coil design, new coolant/working fluids, new neutron absorbers. We should have abundant inexhaustible power by the 2050s; but by that time our gadgets may be so small and efficient that they will not draw much power at all. Photovoltaic collectors will become the leaves of the technological tree.
One way of putting all this is that we are moving from a labor-based economy to an information-based economy. Of course there are intractable problems inherent in this transition, the greatest of which is the creation of an underclass, which, because of its lack of education, has no information to sell; and which can no longer sell its labor because of lack of demand. Thus education has now become the number one economic priority.
But the benefits of the information economy should likewise not be underestimated. For it is essentially pleasurable for human beings to produce information (while it is essentially painful for human beings to engage in repetitive and mechanical labor). And while the material products of labor are subject to decay and cannot be shared–a physical object cannot be in two places at once–it is in the nature of informational goods to retain their pristine form and to be infinitely reproducible and sharable among people. For this biosphere the transition to the information economy will mean an enormous lightening of the load of human activities. We human beings, carried by the feathery and invisible media of information, will tread upon the planet with only the slightest imprint.
The electronic revolution has already transformed the whole field of prosthetics for the handicapped, replacing damaged human parts with servomechanisms and computers. In the future it will apply this kind of knowledge to healthy and intact people, developing in effect new senses and new limbs. The direct neural/cybernetic interface will move out of the realm of science fiction and become increasingly an everyday utility. And this trend has profound ecological consequences; for the direct interface will replace much costly and wasteful technology, the technology of chopping things up to be able to examine them, of stacking things where we can get at them, and of getting there in the first place. The miraculous powers of the human visual cortex and musical ability will be enabled to grasp the world in clear enough terms to be able to see at a glance what are the underlying forms, trends, and patterns.
We will be able to live more deeply into nature both within and outside us, being informed so much more deeply of its health and growth. Through neural/cybernetic interfaces, virtual reality, sophisticated games and electronic models, ordinary people will increasingly explore history, anthropology, ecology, and the sciences as entertainment, as already they take anthropological cruises, walk nature trails, and refight the battle of Gettysburg. We can be a Bororo tribesman or a Corinthian slavegirl or an Elizabethan courtier or a timber wolf for a while. We will be able to experience directly how our domestic animal friends perceive the world, and be able to communicate with them better than we do now. We will get shot by a “virtual” minie ball and live to tell the tale.
However, human culture will never, we believe, become totally dematerialized. After the excitement of the cybernetic revolution and virtual reality, there will be a return of the pleasure of physical objects, physical training, the physical body. Materials science is currently going through an explosion of creativity–”Buckyballs” and aerogels are, so to speak, only the tip of the iceberg. There will be new kinds of textures, fabrics, surfaces, ropes, elastics, soundproofing, shock-absorbers, glasses, heat-conductors and heat resistors, blades, dyes and pigments, building materials, and so on. We will rediscover the pleasures of natural materials as we explore the potentials of artificial ones. The present trend toward physical training and body culture will continue–and perhaps eventually genetic engineering will give us oiled fur and gills to inhabit the ocean, a lower body-weight, keeled breastbone, and wings to inhabit the air. These are fantasies today; but a medieval observer of twentieth century technology would find it much more astonishing.
Art and technology will increasingly merge into one. New forms of criticism are already springing up–e.g. Earthworks criticism–in which technological, cultural, and artistic values cannot be clearly distinguished. We will see new movements in architecture, using our increasing knowledge of the neurobiological basis of esthetics. The visual arts will find inspiration in the intricate and self-similar designs produced by “chaotic” self-transforming feedback processes–designs that we seem to be biologically programmed to enjoy, because they are also the basis of all growing things. Landscape architecture will merge with restoration ecology, and the traditional building systems of desert peoples, cold-climate peoples, jungle-dwellers and other inhabitants of extreme climates will be consulted for elegant architectural solutions that will be both beautiful and economical in terms of energy and resources.
We will be restoring extinct species, using the 95% of the genes that are “silent” in existing species. We have even begun to create new species. Already European breeders are restoring the extinct aurochs from interbred domestic cattle stock, and South African breeders are bringing back the quagga by selectively breeding zebras. Wes Jackson, the McArthur prizewinning director of the Land Institute, is crossing the ancient teosinte corn with its domesticated descendants, looking for a perennial grain that will not need ploughing or pesticides. One day we may just run the combine harvester over the great prairie every year or so, to get biomass for the food culture factories.
When we look down on the landscape by plane, we will see that much of the land has returned to meadow, swamp, forest, prairie; we will see flocks of thousands of birds, herds of deer and elk, the occasional village of people who have chosen, permanently or temporarily, to explore, as the Amish do, the life of traditional technology, religion, and village economy. There will be a large increase in “wild” nature, unobtrusively managed. The Appalachians are already going back to hardwood forest; the bears and the wolves are coming back; and this is happening all over the developed world. Scotland, for instance, is now closer to its “aboriginal” state than at any time in the last four hundred years.
Huge land reserves will have been created for tourism, adventures, animal and bird watching, hunting, wargames, science, and recreational volunteer earthkeeping safaris. Many cultural traditions will contribute: the aristocratic deerpark from the European, Indian, Middle Eastern, and Chinese traditions; the religious meditation garden or sacred precinct from the Japanese, Indochinese and Mesoamerican traditions; the “wilderness area,” restored prairie, and theme park from the Euro-American tradition; and the maintained hunting ground from the African and Native American traditions. The word “paradise” (originally from Arabic) literally means “happy hunting grounds.” Perhaps we will even have “Jurassic Park” areas with extinct species resurrected by a sort of genetic archeology from the genes of living species, living in complete restored ecosystems that mimic the conditions of prehistoric periods of the the Earth’s history. The attempts at such reserves which we have accomplished to date have been on a relatively small scale, limited in their ability to produce new evolutionary mutations and adaptations, and requiring outside maintenance to keep out weeds and exotics. Perhaps in the future these parks will be so huge that they will in a few years be functionally “wild” and productive of genuine novelty. There is no reason why many of these parks should not be in private hands and run at a profit, encouraged by tax laws that reflect their actual benefits to the population in terms of species diversity, genetic information, education, public access, and amenity.
Although the old city centers will be increasingly limited to pedestrians, cheap pollutionless hydrogen powered cars in subground roads, partly automated, and with neural/cybernetic control, will continue the tradition of individual choice. Personal mobility will always be crucial to human freedom, as crucial as the vote. Perhaps the bicycle will become even more important than it is now. The cities will, I believe, survive the revolution in communications that has made them technologically obsolete. They will do so by developing a sense of themselves as unique centers of human communion, philosophical exploration, collective art and worship–the vision expressed in the medieval cathedrals or in Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece. Gardening will become one of the chief urban occupations. In Europe very heavy urban population densities have proved to be quite compatible with delightfully quiet, green and pleasant residential districts. Indeed, without feeling so, the cities may well be more populous than in the past; especially if we can solve the problem of inner-city urban decay.
We will see a return to nature-based forms of religion–new versions of animism, totemism, sacrifice ritual, seasonal/fertility/cosmological rites, and the like. The new nature religion is already becoming integrated into the old Judeo-Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist worldviews; and such religions as Shinto and Tao did not have far to go in any case.
In this scenario the increase in atmospheric CO2 will have slowed to a stop, with new forests and extended coral growth soaking up the excess produced by combustion. The level of carbon dioxide will be higher than at present; but since the gas is a plant fertilizer, and since the planet is now cooler and dryer than it has been for much of its history, the greenhouse effect at modest controllable levels may be just what the biosphere needs for further enrichment. The world will be warmer, wetter, and more fertile; not so as to be unrecognizable, and within the present range of variation from year to year–perhaps like a succession of particularly good winters. What were once taigas or tundras may become prairies able to support perennial-grain polyculture. The reclamation of desert seacoasts may also lead to generally milder, less extreme climates worldwide.
More alarmingly, the ozone layer will have thinned further, and we will need to find ways to protect ourselves from the resulting modest increase in ultraviolet radiation. The world has recognized the problem and is taking steps to halt the use of chlorofluorocarbons; but the damage will continue for some years and no technological solution for rolling it back has yet appeared. However, there have been episodes in the Earth’s past when, as a result of meteor strikes or volcanic eruptions, there were far more catatrophic changes in the atmosphere, changes which undoubtedly included the release of huge amounts of the potent reagents that can trigger the decay of ozone; and the atmosphere has recovered. We must research the healing processes that already exist in the planet’s repertoire, and learn how to encourage them. The eruption of Mount Pinatubo seems to have temporarily restored some of the stratospheric ozone; perhaps we can take a leaf out of nature’s book.
Most food and agricultural products will be made in laboratory/factories. Fishfarms and hydroponic truckfarming will cater to the increasingly sophisticated culinary tastes of a world in which the high arts of eating will no longer be confined to a few lucky cultures like China and France. The current fashion for reviving old strains of fruits and vegetables will continue. We will not need slaughterhouses–we will produce cloned varieties of animal muscle tissue, gene-tailored for taste and texture, without nerves or the capacity for pain; the genetic technology already exists and is being used to clone skin, interferon, and insulin.
As prosperity and economic security increase all over the world, the birthrate will go down, parents no longer feeling the need to produce an excess of children–many of whom would not survive–to care for them in their old age. As women all over the world find new occupations open to them, many will not choose the option of having a family. But families are still the key to psychological stability, personal dignity, and moral continuity. Perhaps there will be a new era of the extended family. Only those adults with the talent, commitment, and strength will have children. Parents will be regarded as we regard artists today, as special people with special gifts, to be accorded the highest respect and given certain social privileges so that they can do their work–the most important work of all–of creating happy and competent human beings. And perhaps people without children of their own will be part of some larger family of more distant relatives, and will owe love and respect to the matriarch and patriarch of that family. Perhaps they will have the occasional privilege of helping with the children; and they will draw emotional support and psychological health from the mistress and master and their children. In a world in which zero population growth will have become a reality, contact with children and with real live parents will have become luxuries, perhaps essential psychic needs. Some readers will already see this happening in social relations.
The human lifespan will be greatly extended, by biomedical and biocybernetic means; perhaps eventually we will attain practical immortality, if we desire it. This is an extremely difficult issue, especially when it comes to finding a place for the young, who will be few and at a huge disadvantage. The young are going to be the underclass, the discriminated-against minority, the dangerous criminals, of the twenty-first and twenty-second century, if we are not careful. Even today the general improvement in the health and vigor of the middle aged has taken away some of the cultural ground and habitat of youth. And as we can see in punk fashions, youth has felt itself forced to respond by adopting, in a kind of resentful parody, the decrepit body silhouette and coloring, drab clothes, bald heads and depressive behavior that were once associated with old age. Perhaps the problem will be dealt with by mandating that those whose vigorous lifespans have been artificially extended will have to undergo a periodic legal and social “death,” that will divest them of economic possessions, family and professional authority, public identity and legal obligation, leaving them only with their lives and memories. We believe that immortals would certainly welcome such changes, allowing them to begin a new life in what would amount to a literal reincarnation.
In this vision one principle is important to keep in mind, which I have hinted at in various suggestions about profoundly problematic aspects of the new world that is coming. The principle is that we should never aim at Utopia, that is a fixed, perfect state in which history stops and everybody lives happily ever after. What we should always aim at is an ever-richer and more open-ended historical condition, in which new possibilities are always opening up, and thus new problems and challenges are always arising. The idea of an entirely stable and “maintainable” world order will always be a nightmare to the most vigorous, adventurous, and imaginative spirits among us; and since the only way to attain a steady-state Utopia would be by the suppression of such spirits in a kind of Gulag of the mind, the gains would not be worth the cost.
Achieving the Vision:
Value and the Faster, Richer Cycle
First, a philosophical distinction. Philosophy concerns how we look at things, and how we look at things can make all the difference in the world–between an insoluble problem and a golden opportunity, between an economic drain and a profit center. A simple illustration will make this clear; let us put it in the form of a question.
If Jane has a gallon of water, and Dick has two gallons of water, who has more water?
Obviously, if we stick to the strictly linear philosophy we were taught in grade school, the answer is that Dick has more water. But there is another logic which might give us a very different answer. If Dick lives in an ecosystem that recycles water every two years, he actually “has” a gallon a year. If Jane lives in an ecosystem that recycles water every week, she “has” a gallon of water per week, or fifty-two times as much as Dick. (If, like Jane Pointer, the Biospherian, the cycle time is closer to twenty-four hours, she would have 365 times as much water as Dick!) So the first answer is: “Dick has more water;” but the second is “it all depends on the speed of the recycling process.”
Notice that the terms of the question have changed their meaning, without changing their outward form, as we have suggested by putting “has” in quotation marks. To have is really to have over a given amount of time; or one could turn the issue around and say that a gallon of water is really a gallon of usable water. In Frank Herbert’s novel Dune, the nomadic tribes who wander the desert planet Arrakis reckon as their most precious possession the store of water contained in each tribesman’s body; they wear “stillsuits” that extract the moisture from body wastes and give them back to be used again. In our example, Dick only “has” his two gallons every two years; or we could say that while “his” two gallons are circulating through the rivers and aquifers and clouds and raindrops and reservoirs and water pipes he does not really possess them because he cannot use them.
“Use value” is the foundation of economics; but use involves both time and iteration. “Iteration” means essentially “doing it over again,” and it has become an important word in a whole range of disciplines, including nonlinear algebra, computer science, chaos theory, and the new wave of ecological science being pioneered by biologists like Daniel Botkin and others. Another important word in drawing the distinction between the logic of the first answer and the logic of the second is “feedback.” Dick’s water is part of a slow and inefficient feedback system; Jane’s is part of a fast and efficient one. Value, in the economic sense, comes out of the efficient use of time and iteration and feedback; Jane gets better value out of her gallon than Dick gets out of his.
Any system that contains feedback, that is, in which the process that produces the results is subject to influence or control by the results, is called “nonlinear.” A nonlinear equation in mathematics is one in which the provisional solution to the equation is fed back into the equation as one of its original terms. A nonlinear dynamical system in physics is one in which the motion of any one of its components–say, a water molecule in a turbulent flow of water–is governed by that of other components (other water molecules pushing against it, in our example), and those other components are in turn influenced by the first component. In other words, a turbulent flow of water is a mass of molecules all determining each other’s motion, so that no molecule can be singled out as the controller of all the others, nor can the motion of any single molecule be described as the purely passive result of the motion of all the others.
Out of these turbulent nonlinear systems can come entirely new and unexpected forms of order, as the Nobel-prizewinning chemist Ilya Prigogine has pointed out. The water molecules can, in an unpredictable way, organize themselves to produce whirlpools and stable rolling structures that can maintain themselves over minutes or even hours. Once such an ordered structure appears, it is quite robust, and can restore itself even if it is disrupted. A rolling boil in a pan of water over the gas flame can be stirred with a wooden spoon but quickly regain its original form; and yet no single molecule is staying where it was. The prize for such stable turbulent structures might go to the Great Red Spot on the planet Jupiter, which is a tropical storm the size of several Earths, that has been raging in the same form and general position ever since Galileo first observed it at the beginning of the seventeenth century. But perhaps this example is too modest; astronomers would claim that the spiral galaxies were much older and bigger examples, and the new discoveries of the granular irregularities of the radiation of the Big Bang would lead cosmologists to claim the whole universe as one huge emergent feature of a chaotic feedback system.
“Emergent features” is another term often used by the new scientific philosophers, to denote those stable structures that can form themselves out of nonlinear feedback systems and turbulent flows. The idea is now being used by evolutionary biologists, who see the emergence of new species within an ecosystem in the same terms, by developmental biologists who study the appearance of new structures within the apparent chaos of the cells of an embryo, and by brain scientists studying the stable waveforms of electrical activity in the brain, that are carried by very complex circuits of neuron firings, and that correspond to our own thoughts, memories, and feelings. Theorists have shown that these stable structures of interacting information are guided into existence by mysterious and beautiful “strange attractors” that seem in an odd way to preexist the turbulences they command, and that seem to indicate a deeper order in Nature itself.
And now, if we explore our homely little example about Dick and Jane a little further, new subtleties appear. The first answer, that Dick has more water, is based on an outdated materialist philosophy, which fails to reckon with time and with iteration. But once we have accepted the new philosophy, Jane’s advantage over Dick in turn becomes questionable. If Jane’s gallon simply passes through Jane, is refined by expensive energy and given back to her within a week, whereas Dick’s has spent a lazy two years nourishing plants, acting as the medium of marine life and geological change, and helping to drive the world weather system, might we not argue that Dick actually “has” his two gallons in a larger, grander sense than Jane has hers? In Biosphere II, the designers recognized the barrenness of merely speeding up the cycle by mechanical means, and set up a complex nonlinear ecosystem that drives Jane Pointer’s gallon through an organic microworld with enough components for second-order effects–like the flowers of the tropical trees in the biosphere’s rainforest, or the social behavior of its humans and animals–to enrich the ecology and the biospherians’ experience. Those second-order effects are emergent features of the system, and they are guided by the strange attractors of genetic, ecological, and social interaction.
So in our new economics it is not enough to replace the old materialistic notion of value as the possession of a commodity with the idea of the cycle-speed at which it returns to us; we must also reckon in the richness and creativity of the system through which it cycles. Value is, as it were, the cycle-speed multiplied by the emergent order of the system. Linear systems are subject to the absolute law that governs all linear systems: the second law of thermodynamics, which states that all such systems run down–their disorder increases with time until finally they can no longer maintain the gradients of energy that can do work, and become essentially inert. A linear machine uses up its fuel and wears out. But nonlinear systems are open-ended, and new forms of order can emerge within them spontaneously. Those new forms of order can then cycle their resources more and more swiftly, and thus outstrip the thermodynamic decay of their components. A living organism, unlike a linear machine, repairs itself and grows, and a living species can even, through evolution, increase its own orderly organization and efficiency, and create its own fuel, and give birth to new generations that do not reflect the aging of their parents.
We may now see clearly how both the old industrial model of wealth-extraction and the more recent tradition of environmental purity have failed. The old industrial philosophy was essentially linear; if you wanted a certain result, you figured out how to get it, and then you did what you needed to bring it about. Your engineers might talk about the cycles in your machinery or in your production line, but you wouldn’t apply the idea to the natural and social worlds outside the factory; they were assumed to be an inexhaustible mine of raw materials, labor, and demand, and an infinite sink for waste products and undesirable social consequences. The old North-Country English saying sums it up: “where there’s muck, there’s brass:” where there’s filth, there’s money. The Great Depression alerted business to the cycles of the socio-economic world; but only now is business beginning to apply the warnings of boom-and-bust to nature itself.
The traditional environmental purist is just as much of a materialist as the traditional businessperson. Though the eco-purists give lip-service to the idea of cycles, for them the point of cycles is to preserve, not to create; what they seek is repetition, not iteration-with-a-difference. They believe in the gallon of water in itself (rather than how fast it cycles, or how richly it is used in its journey), with the same materialist fervency as their brothers and sisters in the old smokestack industries: for them its purity from contamination (by which they mean, finally, its insulation from human cycles) is what is important. They do not understand the new forms of order that emerge out of nonlinear systems. They wish to keep the human and the natural cycles apart, and cannot abide the idea that human cycles are natural, or that natural cycles might be essentially impure, transformative, evolving, productive of novelty, and open-ended just as human cycles are. Their solutions are just as linear, just as much of a zero-sum game, just as subject to the increase of entropy, as those of traditional smokestack industry. The old industrialist irresponsibly expects his profit to come out of nature’s hide, the new environmentalist irresponsibly expects her moral vindication and government subsidy to come out of the hide of the economy that supports us all. Neither can envision the new game, that is being created by the most far-sighted in both the business and the environmental communities, in which both sides gain, in which information, which is productive and potentially immortal, both natural and cultural, is allowed to generate new forms of wealth through the interplay of nature and culture, without loss to nature or culture.
Restoration and Arcadia
Where might we seek a garden which embodies the process and creative transformation of nature? One place is, I believe, arcadia. Until recently the true arcadian garden flourished only in paintings, or as the accidental property of certain landscapes hunted, grazed or partly cultivated by ancient traditional cultures. The gardens of the Villa d’Este attempt to reproduce the arcadian theme of metamorphosis by the use of fountains and flowing water, but the inner dynamics of ecological and genetic process were beyond the reach of its gardeners. They were not, however, beyond the reach of the traditional cultures. One finds arcadia in the hills of Tuscany, the hedgerow and beech landscape of the Cotswolds, the valleys of rural Japan, the forests of New Hampshire and the savannahs of ancient Africa. It is ecologically rich– richer, often, in species and varieties than it would have been without its human inhabitants. It undergoes continuous mild change, and is very adaptable to ecological alteration. We human beings have a natural tropism toward it, and our names and representations of Paradise (a hunting-park– or happy hunting grounds) reflect it. All wise arcadians know that Death is a welcome visitor there, and they resist any attempt to keep him out. “Is there no change of death in Paradise?/ Do ripe fruit never fall?” inquires Wallace Stevens; and our mythological heroes have gone so far as to eat the fruit and die of it, to ensure death’s place in arcadia. And with death of course comes consciousness, reflexivity, that loss of innocence that makes arcadia capable of birth and of creative novelty.
The dream of the productive or creative arcadia– symbolically populated by amorous shepherds and shepherdesses– may then make more sense than we have given it credit for. Perhaps it is an ancient image of the garden that does what nature does, that reproduces itself, copies itself into the future, and that slowly improves on the copies by the evolutionary forces of permitted mutation, sexual reproduction, and selection– in a word, by play. In such a world human beings may indeed “play” a vital role, as keepers of the balance and as selective breeders of the most vigorous, varied and beautiful organisms.
In an article in Harper’s Magazine some time ago I called for an American garden, a new tradition that would bridge the deep and damaging cultural gap in the American imagination between nature and humanity, the protected wilderness area and the exploited landscape. I now believe that one of the central features of that new tradition is already represented by the work of the ecological restorationists, who at such places as the Wisconsin Arboretum and elsewhere have entered on the exciting and visionary task of reconstructing, species by species, on damaged and derelict land, the rich ecology of natural biomes. The leading theorist of ecological restoration, and in my opinion the wisest thinker on environmental issues that we have, is William R. Jordan III, of the Wisconsin Arboretum. It was in conversation with him that I realized that the garden I sought, the garden which does what nature does, was aleady being planted by the restorationists; and here, it seems to me, can be found the next creative phase in the arcadian tradition.
Restoration, then, meets many of the definitional requirements of a major artform. A great art must call upon fundamental human biocultural aptitudes and pleasures; it must serve some higher purpose, whether immanent or transcendent; it must reveal to us in its own way some unique set of insights about our nature and its relation to the rest of nature; it must result in a product that inspires in us the intangible excitement, the shiver of recognition, that we know as the experience of beauty; and it must bear within it the capacity for radical innovation and creation. Restoration brings out the gardener in us, and slakes that technological human need to be busy about something, as well as our nurturing, pedagogical instinct. It devotes itself to a transcendent, almost a religious, ideal, the healing of the mystical body of nature. It tells us more than any theory or passive experiment what nature is and how we can relate to it. And it produces not just a single object but a whole environment filled with an asymmetrical but ordered esthetic harmony. Our innate sense of beauty may have originated partly in an instinctive recognition of a vigorous ecology and our part in it, a talent which would have contributed significantly to our survival as a species.
The only area where restoration does not seem to fit the definition of a great art is in the requirement for radical innovation and creation. Perhaps for the time being we might settle for the conception of restoration as a performing or secondary art, and the restorationist as analogous to an actor or instrumentalist who reproduces as exactly as possible the intentions of the playright or composer, mother nature. But I hope to show that if we take a larger view of restoration, a good case can be made for it as a primary creative art as well.
Certainly this new artform fully involves the noblest achievement of human culture in the last three hundred years, that is, the natural sciences. Many traditional arts have severely impoverished themselves, by rejecting the great adventure of science and technology (though I see signs now that this self-imposed alienation is coming to an end). But the art of ecological restoration brings into full creative play the cognitive and technical capacities of our species and our culture.
Indeed, it is this very friendliness of restoration to human talents and enthusiasms which has won it enemies. Such critics maintain that restoration, by palming off on us a copy of nature in place of the irreplaceable original, is no better than the art forger who sells us a fake imitation of a genuine painting. Now here we may see the usefulness of our earlier classification of garden types and the views of nature that support them. The critic of restoration as fakery is clearly in the metaphysical camp of the platonists, the classicists, the idealists who believed that the true nature was that which does not change. The strictures of such a critic might well apply to the romantic garden of appearances.
But the idealist is compelled to ignore the fact that living things are already copies, and that their very metabolism consists in a process of normal chromosome and cell division (mitosis) punctuated by the even more radical changes of meiosis and sexual reproduction. If the artwork that the restorationist imitates is not only a reproduction, but a process of reproduction in itself, the crime of forgery seems to be at least a mild one and at best, paradoxically, more in the true spirit of the original than preserving it would be!
It is the nature of an ecology to reinvent itself flexibly over and over, every season, using its genetic copying machine to provide plausible models for colonization; and this is how it deals with the vicissitudes of climatic change and the environment pressures of new species which it itself has helped to produce. If it could not fake it, it would die. The critic of the fake is in the same position as someone who objected that since we do not live forever, human life ceases when the present generation dies. Children, after all, are only copies, and imperfect copies at that. But perhaps such an analogy is too human for the purist, who wants to spite human arrogance so badly that he is prepared to risk discouraging human beings altogether from the tasks of ecological stewardship. What such a critic objects to finally is sex and death. By contrast, the sense in which a restorationist reproduces nature is not far from the sense in which a mother reproduces herself in her daughter.
The implication here is that the restorationist actually assists, or is the gentle pander to, the reproductive activities of other species. As my title implied, the restorationist is like the bee, which serves the flowering plants as their reproductive vector. The bee is the natural symbol for the participant-gardener of nature as a process of change.
And this analogy may now help to answer our earlier question, about the creative originality of the art of ecological restoration. The great phylum of the angiosperms, which appeared in the mid-cretaceous period, in the last moments of evolutionary time, and in a mere five million years came to dominate the world, owed its very existence to its insect assistants and the new ecological niches they opened up. The simultaneous explosion of chordate species, of which we are one, may in turn be due to the richer carbohydrate and protein content of angiosperm seeds and fruits. The work of the bee and the bird in spreading angiosperm pollen and seed across the continents was not merely a conserving activity. Rather, it actively promoted the creation of new habitats and ecologically richer biomes.
At present the restorationist bee is necessary as a preserver, and a more effective one, as I hope I have shown, than the strict platonist/idealist preservationist. But the time is coming when we, and our sister species of this planet, will seed ourselves across the solar system, and perhaps further still; as once the pelagic species colonized the land, and the insects and birds the air. The task will be enormous, and will be too much for the relatively slow and unreflective processes of genetic adaptation. It will require wise bees, seed vectors of great exactness, able to provide the right environment for infant growth until the growth itself has altered those harsh environments into something hospitable to living things. Their work would fully meet the last requirement of a great artform, that it generate radical novelty in the world, and create something that did not exist before. Perhaps the restorationists are the first generation of such bees.
I walk by Lavon Lake in the indian summer,
By the satiny-silver bones and skulls of the trees,
Where I find half-buried in crumbly sable gumbo
The great greenblack shell of a dead snapping turtle,
A tiny convolvulus, violet-throated, enweaved
In its gaping orifice; a foam-rubber cushion choked
With the lake-silt, bearing a miniature garden of clubferns,
An ant’s-nest, a gauzewinged azure surefooted dragonfly!
The caked and powdery beach is curiously pure:
Even the halfburied Budweiser gleams in the sungold,
And bronzy-black grasshoppers evolve to scavenge this newness,
And archaean footprints of North American marsupials
Cross with the dog’s, the crane’s thin cuneiform
Stalked by what must be the paws of a feral cat.
The seeds of willows have made their way here, have grown
Into little sallowy arbors of halfshadow green
Where the shore is spongy, prairie aquifers spring
To the surface, lagoons with tussocks of buffalo-grass,
Groves of exotic bamboo, impede the footsteps.
And the lake, lit by the glowing skeletons, green
In the unnatural light of my sunglasses, turns to light blue
And mirrors, fantastic, the miniature hills of the shore,
Gold-brown in the early fall, with woodlands,
Radio-beacons, real-estate development.
How young the world is. I am its oldest inhabitant;
I was there at its white condensation, I am here, I shiver,
I hear overhead the whimpering whoop of the geese,
Two-year-old ghosts of this, the new dispensation,
In their plunge southward over the edge of the planet.
They do not know where they are going; I drink them,
Swallow their great raggedy flightline into
The inner sky of my spirit, the divine southland
That dreams in the web of the human software, the fold
That the shepherd has made by the side of the still waters.
And the sky is so blue! The outlines but not the substance
Of brilliant clouds sometimes appear in its firmament,
Deflecting the sunrays to cast a shadow of azure
Over the breezed, hazy perfection of heaven.
This place of bones is a province of ancient Pangaea;
I am the large land mammal of the Pleistocene,
My food is the turbulence caused by the jut of consciousness
Into the flow of world-information, the swirl of spirit
Boiling about the point where nature, transfigured,
Breaks and shivers into the glow of the supernatural.