Now and Never

The Once and Future World: Finding Wilderness in the Nature We’ve Made
By J.B. MacKinnon
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013, 240 pages

In Review

Recently I conducted a census of all the shrubs, grasses, flowers, and trees living on my block in Oakland, California. There are at least 117 different species in my neighbors’ front gardens. It’s an unruly mix – maples, pines, cacti, salvias, roses, edibles and ornamentals – a variety that makes a good home for all sorts of creatures. Over the years I have spotted in my yard scores of sparrows, phoebes, warblers, towhees, plus of course ravens and those awful starlings. Opossums are not uncommon. Yet this landscape is entirely manmade. My neighborhood botanical census includes no more than a handful of species – coast live oak, flowering currant, monkey flower, Douglas iris – native to the coast of Northern California. book cover thumbnail

This little urban oasis is what biologists have dubbed a “novel ecosystem.” It’s not wild, that’s for sure. But neither is it entirely tame. There’s a riot of life there, including many critters (skunks, raccoons, rats) that we humans would rather do without, but which keep nuzzling in anyway. The landscape is a hybrid of the original and the artificial – and, as JB MacKinnon would argue, it’s 100 percent natural.

The intersection of the wild and the manmade is the driving preoccupation of MacKinnon’s latest book, The Once and Future World. Like many other environmental writers these days, MacKinnon is eager to examine whether it’s time to come up with new a definition of “nature.” In epoch of the Anthropocene, the old description of “wilderness” may no longer fit with reality. But, MacKinnon insists, the ideal of wilderness remains as important as ever. To explore the tension between our hopes for the wild and the reality of an increasingly tamed planet, MacKinnon takes the reader on a global tour of ecosystems past, present, and future. The result is a book that is wonderfully discursive, sometimes frustratingly digressive, and consistently delightful.

MacKinnon starts with an elegy. In just the past few centuries, the planet has lost a tragic number of species and a horrific amount of biodiversity. He reminds us of how the seas once teemed with sharks and sea turtles, both of which are threatened today. All of the deforestation that has ever taken place, he reports, has occurred in just the last century. Human encroachment has become an encirclement of the whole planet, and our ceaseless racket has made the natural world a quieter place, now absent of many wildlife sounds. “The entire continent of Europe is a tastefully appointed ecological wasteland,” MacKinnon writes in one of his sharper barbs, “rich in human culture, antiquities and innovation, but poor in the abundance and variety of species.”

But then MacKinnon pivots to optimism and shows that, while we’ve destroyed far too much of the original world, not all is lost. He seems to be saying: “Don’t mourn – synthesize.” Take what remains, combine it with the most promising new conservation strategies, and find a way to protect and create ecosystems that will remain diverse and lively. MacKinnon gives special attention to rewilding efforts in North America, finding hope in the comebacks of the California condor, the bison, the gray wolf.

MacKinnon’s storytelling is never less than fascinating. I do, however, have a quibble: I wish the author had made more of an attempt to craft a clear argument. I don’t need anything as hackneyed as “this is a story about …” But some kind of thesis, offered in a prologue or an introduction, would have given the book a tighter form and more of a punch. As it is, The Once and Future World presents natural history as just one damned phenomenon after another. Still, the lack of a focused argument is forgivable, if only because MacKinnon is such an engaging tour guide.

In the end, MacKinnon makes the case that our biggest ecological problem today is blindness. “The crisis in the natural world is one of awareness,” he writes. As an urban species, we barely notice nature and we don’t even know wilderness. It’s easy, then, to miss their decline. We’re all Easter Islanders, MacKinnon says, barely surviving in a barren landscape but somehow OK with that. If we’re ever going to accommodate ourselves to living in greater balance with the nonhuman world (à la the pre-European Hawai‘ians), our first task is to see exactly where we are. Take the time to read The Once and Future World, and I guarantee your eyes will be opened a little wider.

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