Once upon a time, I decided to pursue a career in architecture because “sustainable design” sounded like a really good idea, a way to make a positive impact on the world, to do something beneficial for the environment. After a number of years getting educated in architecture, I started to feel dissatisfied. “Sustainable” clearly wasn’t enough – even if every building managed a “net zero” type of design (it produced all the energy it needed, things like that), that wouldn’t help resolve all the pre-existing environmental problems, would it? No. I realized that what I really wanted to see more of, to be involved with, was regenerative design: design that would give back in a positive way to the environment, not simply not do harm.
What I found when I searched for “regenerative design,” however, was almost without exception not architectural in nature. I found permaculture – which is great, but it seemed almost entirely focused on growing plants and developing food-producing methods that were beneficial for the land on which these systems were created.
I started getting really into learning about putting green roofs and things on buildings, to provide resources for living things other than humans, but even that seemed insufficient for what I really wanted to do – and then after a few more years of failure in that direction, I walked away from architecture altogether.
But not that basic concept of regeneration; that has retained its fundamental importance.
A little over a year ago, I met a not-exactly-a-land spirit, who taught me a few things. One of the things he advised me on was to look into “resilience.” That word.
I looked that up, especially looking at resilience in the context of landscape restoration work, or other ecological contexts, since it seemed I was being guided SOMEWHERE (the ALL CAPS of frustration with lack of details) that had to do with the land. I ended up feeling frustrated, because most of what I found around that time was related to resilience in human structures: making your neighborhood/city/etc. “resilient.”
Over the last 18 months, I have often questioned the value of doing landscape restoration work, often while out doing it. How much of what we do, thinking it is beneficial for a given landscape, really IS beneficial in the long run? How much of what we do is based on what amounts to political or philosophical biases, or normal human short-sightedness? And how much will it really matter, anyway? In 50 years, in 500? Forests, for example, aren’t really anything like “mature” for centuries. And with global warming and all the associated climatic changes . . . well, you can probably see why I look at this kind of work and ponder what value it has, beyond something I can (try to) feel good about. (Sometimes it isn’t hard to feel good: when I remove a big bunch of non-native clematis from a sapling, bent nearly 90 degrees from upright, and a month later that tree is now fully vertical, that feels good.)
I’ve voiced my doubts and concerns to a number of Others: the land spirit where I do the restoration work, Loki, an enormous old sitka spruce, whoever is listening, etc., etc., and despite my concerns that They are only encouraging me for my own good, that I am confused and/or delusional about the value of this, that I know what some of my own biases for doing the work are and maybe those are the wrong ways to view things and it’s blinding to me what They really want, but, well . . . They keep encouraging me.
Finally, in the last 6 months, I’ve started seeing more writing about resilience in landscapes, in wild systems, not just human groups. Coupled with that I’ve been seeing more and more writing about the changes we are already seeing in wild systems due to global warming, and the changes we are likely to see more of . . . and I’ve slowly been thinking that my goal is not restoring places so that they can be perfect and unchanging and “back” to how they ‘used to be”/”ought to be,” but it is restoring them to a more resilient state, so that they will better be able to survive the coming changes, with as much biodiversity and basic health as possible.
My heart aches, thinking about this, putting it to words, because it comes along with acknowledging that much will change, and that – likely – much of that change will be felt as great losses. But this is the conclusion I have come to at this point, that building up resilience – the ability to survive, a little better than otherwise – is the goal, is the value of the work. In 500 years, of course the land will change a great deal, in some places much more than others, but can it be aided enough that the coming changes will not be completely catastrophic? Can holes in the web be mended, the edges drawn back together, the pattern made more intact, so it can go on more easily under new conditions, rather than collapse?
I was at the park today (removing clematis from what turned out to be rather a lot of dogwood beneath!) when I remembered I had to write my weekly article. I realized I wanted to write a bit about restoration work, and about resilience, but I didn’t think I’d actually read anything on the topic this week (the deal I made was to read something, and then write about it). Luckily, I am able to meet both goals, for after getting home I found two great articles: “Beyond Resilience,” which has some pertinent things to say, and an example worth reading about:
Restoring land to health means trying to return it to something like normal ecological conditions. But what if the definition of normal changes in the meantime?
An ecosystem’s capacity to absorb a shock, such as a drought, flood, or forest fire, and then bounce back as quickly as possible is called resilience. Since it’s a critical part of ecosystem health, ecologists have made a big effort to understand what constitutes “normal” conditions in order to help a system be as resilient as possible, especially if the shock has been caused by humans, such as overgrazing by cattle. But what if a system’s definition of normal changes? What if a region’s annual precipitation dropped by half—and stayed there? Or when the rains did fall, they came as unusually large flood events or at the wrong time of year? What does resilience mean in this context?
It’s not an abstract question. Under climate change, scientists tell us, we’ll be experiencing all manner of new normals. For restoration purposes, this means we need to search the management toolbox for practices that go beyond short-term resilience and allow an ecosystem to endure long-term deviations from normal conditions.
Much of the article describes a very large restoration project, which went along very well for a while . . . and then things started changing.
I also found “The Power of Permaculture: Regenerating Landscapes and Human-Nature Connections,” which says:
What it seems we really need—as a society and as individuals—are tools for being proactive and directly engage in long-term regeneration: healing the land, healing the planet, healing ourselves, and rebuilding the sacred relationship between humans and . We need tools that go beyond the above approaches and into envisioning “what’s next?” or “what’s better?”
and presents permaculture’s approach as a set of such tools, along with some examples of extremely positive outcomes of applying the permaculture approach in a few different landscape contexts.
(There is an interesting bit of synchronicity here in the articles beyond the immediately obvious: a commenter on the latter is the spouse of one of the people mentioned in the former.)