The role of nostalgia in our landscape preferences

Michael McCarthy is a British environmental journalist whose love of nature originates with personal loss.  When he was only 7 years old, his mother had a mental breakdown that forced her to abandon him and his brother.  This traumatic experience caused irreparable psychological damage to his brother, but not to him because he withdrew from the family and found refuge in nature.

Fortunately, he lived close enough to wild land, where he could spend endless hours wandering on his own, watching birds, insects and animals.  He found peace there and because it was 1954, he also found an abundance of creatures.  The title of his book, The Moth Snowstorm, is a metaphor for the abundance of nature when he was a child:

“There were lots of many things, then. Suburban gardens were thronged with thrushes.  Hares galumphed across every pasture.  Mayflies hatched on springtime rivers in dazzling swarms. And larks filled the air and poppies filled the fields, and if the butterflies gilled the summer days, the moths filled the summer nights, and sometimes the moths were in such numbers that they would pack a car’s headlight with beams like snowflakes in a blizzard, there would be a veritable snowstorm of moths, and in the end of your journey you would have to wash your windscreen, you have to sponge away the astounding richness of life.  It was to this world, the world of the moth snowstorm, that I pledged my youthful allegiance.” (1)

Mr. McCarthy laments the loss of the natural abundance of his childhood and he places most of the blame for that loss on the explosion of agriculture in post-WW II Britain.  One of the lessons of the war was that there is greater national security in food independence.  Government policies began to subsidize agriculture to such an extent that it became profitable to cultivate every square inch of the British countryside, producing an agricultural surplus of which much is wasted.  The hedgerows of the past that had provided habitat for wildlife were plowed under.

In addition to the loss of habitat, the widespread use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides by the growing agricultural enterprise was a culprit:  “Agricultural poisons [were also to blame].  Poisons for this, poisons for that.  Kill off the insects.  Kill off the snails.  Kill off the wild flowers.  Kill off anything that isn’t your money-making crop with herbicides, pesticides fungicides, molluscidides.”  (1)

Initially this chemical warfare was waged with DDT.  It took many years for the world to understand that DDT was killing birds and decades more for most countries to be willing to stop using DDT and other organochlorine pesticides.  It was a short-lived victory because, “They were replaced with new generations of pesticides which generally did not kill birds directly…Certainly, however, they all killed insects, and they did not just kill ‘target’ insects, they killed almost all insects, just as herbicides usually killed almost all herbs…”  (1)

Defending nature

The damage done to nature in the past 100 years is well known. The environmental advocacy of the past 50 years to stop—if not reverse—that damage is equally well known.  Mr. McCarthy briefly summarizes recent strategies to defend the environment and dismisses them as ineffective:

  • The sustainability movement was based on the theory that human development will not damage nature if it is “sustainable.” The word “sustainable” quickly became a buzzword with little meaning beyond its value as a public relations cover to justify whatever development, timber, mining projects are desired by humans.  Every project is now advertised as being “sustainable.”
  • More recently, environmentalists have tried to defend nature by quantifying its economic value to human society. This was a “fight-fire-with-fire” strategy and it has not proved to be more effective than affixing the word “sustainable” onto every intrusion into wild lands.  As we calculate the economic value of pollination by insects we hope to save, scientists are probably “designing” agricultural crops that are pollinated by wind.

Mr. McCarthy believes those strategies failed because they “engage the intellect [without] engaging the imagination.”  He believes that the only effective defense of nature is based on the “joy and wonder” that nature brings to humans. He shares his personal experiences in nature that have made him a devoted advocate for its preservation.

Nostalgia for the nature of our childhood

Mr. McCarthy describes his first encounters with specific landscapes and species of birds, butterflies, and plants and the joy and wonder they brought to him.  Most of those encounters were in Britain, where he grew up, and so most are landscapes and species with which I am unfamiliar.  It was therefore, difficult to empathize with Mr. McCarthy’s emotional attachment to them.

And so I reflected on my own early experiences in nature and how they shaped my own aesthetic and horticultural preferences.  I was raised in a densely populated, suburban, working class community in Southern California by a single mother.  We did not own a car until I was a teenager and so our trips into wild nature were rare and memorable.  There were a few treasured trips to Catalina Island and one unforgettable trip to Yosemite in a Studebaker coupe packed with 4 children and 2 single moms.

Charlotte Armstrong rose. 1001 Landscaping Ideas. com

As much as I enjoyed those trips, most of my childhood experience with nature was in my own small backyard, which was populated by a few fruit trees and flowering shrubs.  One of my most rewarding experiences in the garden was successfully growing a Charlotte Armstrong rose from cuttings given to me by a teacher when I was about 11 years old.  In retrospect, I now know that nothing in our garden was “native” although at the time I had no reason to know that they weren’t.

As different as my childhood experience in nature was from Mr. McCarthy’s, it was no less meaningful to me.  My childhood was as chaotic as Mr. McCarthy’s after the unexplained disappearance of my father when I was 2.  I built my ideal home in the dirt in my backyard and played out peaceful scenarios with my small plastic dolls under the canopy of the avocado tree.  The neighbor’s lantana bushes attracted swarms of skippers.  We puffed out our cheeks and put as many skippers in our mouths as we could, for the pure pleasure of watching them flutter out of our mouths, seemingly unharmed.  (I wouldn’t do that today, but I don’t begrudge my childhood self that pleasure.)  I bristle when I hear claims that lantana is “invasive” and must be eradicated as well as the claim that non-native plants are not useful to wildlife.  I know otherwise.

Unless they are limbed up, the canopy of avacado trees grow nearly to the ground, creating a private “green room” under the canopy.
Skipper on lantana

There are as many personal experiences in nature as there are people and they obviously vary widely depending upon location, lifestyle and a multitude of other variables.  Predictably, there are therefore a multitude of opinions about “ideal” nature. 

Must nature be exclusively “native” or is a cosmopolitan mix of plants and animals equally valuable?  This is just one of many debates that rage within the community of people who all consider themselves environmentalists.  In our own gardens we can indulge our personal preferences, but the differences of opinion become a source of conflict when public open space is at stake. 

Acknowledging the ways in which nostalgia influences our preferences should help us to resolve those conflicts.  Chris Thomas is a British academic scientist who addresses this question in his new book, Inheritors of the Earth in which he calls out “conservationists for holding viewpoints that seem more driven by nostalgia than by logical thinking about the biological future of our planet.” (2) He believes that conservation efforts inappropriately focus on trying to defend the losers in nature’s great competition for survival, rather than backing the winners that are probably the species that are the future of our biological communities. 

If we can acknowledge that our preferences are based on the past, rather than the future of nature, it is more difficult to justify the use of pesticides to destroy the future.  As Mr. McCarthy tells us, pesticides are one of the primary reasons why the abundance of nature is rapidly disappearing.  Using pesticides to kill existing landscapes is contributing to the loss of nature, not enhancing it.

Please give some thought to how your personal experiences have helped to shape your preferences in nature.  We hope that your reflections will help you to respect the preferences of others.  

  1. Michael McCarthy, The Moth Snowstorm, New York Review of Books, 2015


Mysterious semantics of the native plant movement

In 2000, we wrote a public comment about plans to close areas at Fort Funston for native plant restoration that began with this quotation from Henry David Thoreau:

It is in vain to dream of a wildness distant from ourselves.  There is none such.  It is the bog in our brain and bowels, the primitive vigor of Native in us, that inspires that dream.  Thoreau

We chose that quote to introduce our comment about Fort Funston because it is a place that was entirely altered to serve as a military fort, its sand dunes stabilized with ice plant and studded with gun bunkers; it is not a place that is easily imagined as a pristine native landscape.  As with most poetry, Thoreau’s exact meaning escaped us, but what resonated was the suggestion that “wildness” exists in our minds, not in the material world.  We found comfort in knowing that over 150 years ago, Thoreau was as mystified by the concept of wildness as we are today.

Fort Funston
Fort Funston San Francisco 2011

Today, we revisit the question of the meaning of wildness or wilderness, prompted by the publication of an op-ed by Mark Dowie in the Point Reyes Light. (1)  Dowie is a journalist who is best known as the author of Conservation Refugees, in which he informs us that hundreds of thousands of indigenous people all over the world have been evicted from their ancestral lands by public and private land owners who believe humans are antithetical to their conservation goals.  Dowie tells us that the tradition of evicting humans in the interests of preserving “wilderness” began with the eviction of Native Americans from Yosemite Valley as advocated by John Muir.  This concept of preserving land by excluding all human activities is aptly called fortress conservation. 

Dowie begins his op-ed in the Light with the observation that some words have “attained such a vague and ambiguous definition that [they have] become virtually meaningless.”  The word “sustainability” has attained such status, he says and we agree.  But his focus in his op-ed is on the word “wilderness” because it is a word that has become a tool in a dispute about land use in Point Reyes, where Dowie lives.

The National Park Service defines “wilderness”

Drakes Estero.  NPS photo
Drakes Estero. NPS photo

After a protracted battle that lasted years, the National Park Service was finally successful in shutting down the Drakes Bay Oyster Company based on its contention that the existence of the oyster farm violated a commitment to return the Point Reyes National Seashore to “wilderness.”  This was a battle that tore a small community apart and the wounds from that fight are still deep.

Mark Dowie was one of many people who opposed the closing of the oyster farm and he was often eloquent in its defense in the Light.  One of many issues in this controversy was the National Park Service’s claim that the oyster farm was harming the environment.  Highly qualified scientists debunked that claim and after a review by the National Academy of Science, the claims of the National Park Service were entirely discredited.  Unfortunately, that had no influence on the final decision to close the oyster farm.

Within days of the oyster farm closing its retail operation, those who demanded its closure were on the warpath again.  In an op-ed published by the Oakland Tribune, William Katz asked the National Park Service to evict ranchers and dairy farmers in Point Reyes:  “The European invasion of this side of the continent over just the last 200 years is obviously a done deal.  This fact makes it especially necessary to complete the original mandate of the park’s creation by removing the ranchers and their bovine accoutrements and re-establishing a natural area in which we may only be visitors.”  The connection between those two sentences eludes us.  In fact, they seem contradictory.

Dowie searches for the meaning of “wilderness”

And so, the question of what defines a “wilderness” is still very much alive in Point Reyes.  Mark Dowie tells us that he has been actively seeking a meaningful definition for some years.  He turned to several indigenous cultures based on the modern assumption that pre-European cultures occupied the elusive “wilderness:”

“Over the next four years of research, I met and conversed with many indigenous people who thrived in landscapes that looked as wild as anywhere I had ever been, whose language had no words for ‘wild,’ or ‘wildness,’ or ‘wilderness.’  Naturally, I began to wonder why societies populated by urbane people who spend most of their lives, if not all of them, on the streets of places like New York City, London, Rome, Los Angeles and Winnipeg do have a word for wilderness.  And I wondered what exactly they meant by it, if anything.”

“What I finally figured out about ‘wilderness’ was that it’s really a concept that does not translate well from language to language, especially from western to indigenous languages.  So it’s really not the word that has to be translated, but an entire ecological enthnography.”

And so, Dowie turns to those who use the word “wilderness” as their definition of the goal for what our public lands and open spaces should look like and what activities should be allowed in them:

I recently overheard a debate in which to refine and defend his own personal definition, a local wilderness romantic divided the whole concept into two separate categories—uppercase and lowercase wilderness. Uppercase, he said, was “real” wilderness: vast roadless, trail-free areas occupied by many species, including large predators that want to eat humans.  Lowercase wilderness could be found in state and national parks; as virtual or abstract wilderness, it was a cunning, managed artifice of the uppercase version designed to convince eco-tourists that they are having a true wilderness experience.  The argument descended from there into such ridiculous semantic subterfuge that I walked away mumbling to myself that wilderness may not be a word at all, or a place for that matter, but as Roderick Nash concludes at the end of his 400-page tome on the subject, merely “a state of mind.” And that if wilderness exists at all, it could be as easily found and appreciated under a bench in Central Park as on the barrens of Baffin Island.”

Some of the stumps of the trees that were destroyed in Glen Canyon Park in 2013.  Taken June 2014
Some of the stumps of the trees that were destroyed in Glen Canyon Park in 2013. Taken June 2014

Yes, Mr. Dowie, you have indeed found the mysterious meaning of the word “wilderness” as a “bog in the brain,” to quote Mr. Thoreau.  We have our own example of a similar debate with native plant advocates about the future of Glen Canyon Park in San Francisco.  Our readers will remember Glen Canyon as the scene of the devastating removal of many huge, old trees and the repeated spraying of herbicides to prevent the trees from resprouting and destroy the non-native understory.  To those who objected to this destructive project, a native plant advocate responded:

Please note the term “wilderness.” It implies natural, native flora and fauna; the wild plants and the bird and animal populations that support one another. That is what we want to have if we want a wild retreat. A morass of garden escapes and foreign invasive species is to be deplored. Let’s progress toward returning the area to a REAL wilderness. Do not let the concept that a plant’s becoming established in an area is a sign of its becoming native to the area. It remains an invasive element, a weed. It disrupts and destroys the normal habitat of native plants, animals, and insects in its surroundings.  It will be a huge and long term task, but we can restore the entire canyon to a truly wilderness state. Let’s get started!”

In this version of “wilderness,” trees and plants must be sprayed with herbicide and a new landscape planted.  The result—if it is successful—will be an entirely artificial landscape.  There will be nothing “REAL” about it.

 Language is an obstacle to agreement

 One of many obstacles to reaching agreement with native plant advocates about the future of our public lands and open spaces is that we don’t share a vocabulary.  “Wilderness” is one of many words that cannot be defined by our mutual understanding.

“Sustainability” is another word that is used by native plant advocates, which we believe is inappropriately applied to the projects they demand because it is inconsistent with the realities of climate change and evolution.   The landscapes they are creating are no longer adapted to current environmental conditions.  They are not sustainable.

 “Integrity” has recently become a favorite buzzword of nativists, used to describe their idealized landscape.  We have absolutely no idea what that word means in the context of the contrived landscapes they attempt to create.

And so the debate continues with no end in sight.  Meanwhile our public lands are being destroyed in response to the demands of native plant advocates.  For us the word “wilderness” is now synonymous with “destruction,” which creates a fortress in which humans are not welcome.


(1) Mark Dowie, “The tortured semantics of wilderness,” Point Reyes Light, September 4, 2014