December 2nd, 2013

me meh

Intelligent Tinkering


Intelligent Tinkering: Bridging the Gap between Science and Practice
Robert J. Cabin
Island Press, Washington, DC, 2011
216 pp., with index and selected bibliography

The tropical dry forests of Hawaii are an extremely endangered environment, threatened by almost everything. They were slow to evolve, because of the dryness and frequent interruption by lava flows. Plants and wild life had evolved together for thousands of years before the Polynesians arrived. There was so little competition in the benign environment that roses had lost their thorns; some birds had lost their flight. The Polynesians began shaping the land to their needs, resulting in the extinction of some local species and introduction of many others.

The catastrophic shocks, though, were felt when the Europeans arrived, and began removing forests for plantations and farms. Today, all four counties in Hawaii are in the top five counties for federally listed endangered and threatened species. Some remnants are so small with no regeneration or succession that they’re considered living dead ecosystems. Hawaii is an ecological disaster.

Is it even possible to restore these endangered ecosystems? Is it “worth it”? There are about 12,000 species that exist nowhere else in the world. More new species are being discovered, and supposedly extinct species rediscovered, regularly. 90% of the flowering plants and 80% of the birds are endemic to the islands. Most of the climates and ecosystems of the world exist somewhere in the Hawaiian Islands. Hawaii is also one of the most racially diverse places in the world – and also, unfortunately, one of the most economically stratified.

Cabin spent several years in Hawaii, performing both the science of restoration ecology and the practice of ecological restoration on the tropical dry forests, an ecosystem so endangered you might not have heard of it. An early experience with a restoration work party had a strong resonance with me:

As the morning progressed, I couldn’t help noticing how different we all were. In almost any other situation, most of us would have little if anything to say to one another, and if for some reason we did strike up a substantive conversation, we probably would have discovered that we had radically different opinions about such things as politics and religion. Yet here we were, donating our time on a beautiful Saturday morning and working harmoniously together.

That is exactly my experience, right down to the Saturday morning. Volunteer-driven restoration brings people together in a way that rarely exists in the United States any more. I frequently think that we’re restoring the idea of community built through shared work (as in quilting bees or barn raising) as much as we’re restoring ecological functions.

But a problem with volunteer-driven projects is we are, to some degree, amateurs. On the other hand – on the other side of the wall, to some degree – there are all the scientists doing research into restoration ecology. Cabin asks the question, what can we do to bridge the science and practice gap?

This is a big and important question, but frankly, I was more taken with his stories of the on-the-ground restoration: the physical details of working in a tropical climate to eradicate, even over a few hundred square feet, something as pernicious as fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum). How much political effort it took to build a six acre exclosure. The reward when you return to a spot after a couple years and are surprised and gratified at how well it’s doing. And the disappointment when you return to a spot and nothing has established, or it’s not doing nearly as well as you’d hoped.

The practice of ecological restoration is holistic; you have to be aware of many of the influences – the water, the soil, the aspect of slopes, the surrounding mosaic of land uses – that can affect your project. The science of restoration ecology is necessarily reductive, with its need for clearly delineated experimental design, replicability, awareness of control factors, and a falsifiable hypothesis. There is also the short-term cycle of much scientific research. A grant might only be for a couple years, a master’s or doctoral research project will only last for a few years. Ecological processes can take decades .

Despite these differences, I think research in the science of restoration ecology can have a positive effect on the practice of ecological restoration. For instance, it was a Master’s thesis at the UW that provided a lot of the background for GSP to institute its target forest types. Other research can settle the “obvious” questions that might otherwise be a source for endless debate. Which is best for a cedar seedling: mulch, irrigation, or irrigation gel? (Mulch.)

I think my own practice could benefit from a much more methodical approach, and better record keeping. The truly successful projects, the restoration work that has been going on for ten years and more, are all methodical in their plans and record keeping. (Well, the ones that I know of, at least).

Cabin suggests a model that he calls “intelligent tinkering,” a phrase from Aldo Leopold. It relates to keeping all the cogs and gears of a car as you take it apart. You don’t know what’s essential to the machine, what’s sacrificeable. Your first actions are small and cautious, but as you learn more about the machine, you can take bolder actions.

I think this is happening all over Seattle, in all the different parks and nature areas being stewarded by GSP volunteers. Some of the parks are large, with many different habitat types (Carkeek, Golden Gardens, Discovery). Some are very small, less than two acres (John C. Little). North Beach Park, at 9 acres, is about mid-sized.

It may not be the case that a restoration ecologist could come into one of those parks, and do a specific experiment that has immediate results. But I think it is the case that the general work being done, in all environments and look at many different questions asked by the science of restoration ecology, can have a positive effect on the practice of ecological restoration.

Mirrored from Nature Intrudes. Please comment over there.

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Topic Open House II

Administrivia: There are still plenty of open spots for topic suggestions! LiveJournal. DreamWidth. Topics appropriate for Nature Intrudes will be reposted there.

Today's Topic from jamie: What one thing do I wish everyone knew about urban restoration and why?

I wish everyone knew that it's so multi-faceted!

That's both a dodge to avoid having to pick out one of the many things, and also the truth.

The first thought many people might have when they hear the term "urban restoration" is exactly what I do: work in forested parks and nature areas to remove invasives and plant natives. This is the most basic meaning of restoration, as in the Latin origin of "to give back something lost or taken away."

But I tend to give terms broad definitions, to the point of making said terms too general in some people's viewpoints.

So here are some other things we're doing that I think fall under the umbrella term "urban restoration."

We're restoring communities based on shared work. Despite the lie of “the rugged individual”, there's a good tradition of shared work in the US. Barn raisings are a good example. The social glue of the work far outweighs the cost of the few hours of labor. And barn raisings were a great deal of fun: People would come from miles around, the women would be cooking all day, the men working on the barn, the kids either helping or running all over the place. People caught up with neighbors they might not have seen since the last barn raising, and it all ended with a banquet and GoH speeches. I don't think it's stretching the point to say that park restoration is a 21st C. version of that. It's certainly a bigger task than any one person, or even a small group, can do. The social aspect, in fact, is something that brings people back to restoration projects. I think it's at least as important as the physical work.

It's restoring contact with local nature. The attitude that the built and the natural environments are different, even antagonistic, is getting a lot of deserved critique. This leads people to say "I love being in nature!" while standing on a carefully-groomed ADA accessible trail (as I have done) and "the city is so artificial!" while missing all the wildlife around them. By working in a local park, we learn that nature really does intrude (*koff*) in places we don't expect it to. As we restore contact with local nature, we establish a home ground and deepen our sense of place. From that home ground, we see how our choices and actions ripple out into the world. In the case of North Beach Park, there's a stream that goes to Puget Sound. If we improve the hydrology and nutrient cycling of North Beach Park, the water reaching Puget Sound will be that much cleaner.

Contact with local nature doesn’t have to happen in a park, it depends on awareness more than anything else. Lyanda Lynn Haupt has just published a great book about developing awareness of local nature called The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild. Being aware of the wild life around us increases our awareness of the web of ecologies that we are part of. Awareness of that web follows us home from the park.

By restoring a park, we restore the idea that a city is a place worth living in. Because we had a frontier, USians never gave cities much credence. And since the end of WWII, the US has actively disinvested in its cities in the guise of "dream home in the suburbs." The ecological activism of the 1970s accentuated the idea of the city as fallen and Nature as Edenic, and a chasm between the two.

But urban restoration allows us to see that cities provide a lot of good, as well. They provide efficiencies of scale and density that make many services cheaper and more efficient. The city itself can be restored. Designing cities for automobiles makes them sewers for cars; designing them for pedestrians makes all forms of travel – bus, bike, walking, cars – work better.

When we talk about a park providing ecological services such as stormwater retention and filtration, we start to ask how that can be brought out of the park and into the surrounding city. That’s where rain gardens come in, building urban canopy, and more.

I suddenly feel like saying all this just allows me to show off a bit. The one thing that I would like people to realize about urban restoration is that it’s great fun and enlivening.