Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Wish You Were Here

"Monarch", the last known California Grizzly Bear, now in the collections at the California Academy of Sciences

I live in a place that used to have large wild animals, all of us do. Much of the way that we live is profoundly and unnecessarily destructive of the rest of the life around us. In that vein, I've been thinking a lot about re-wilding. The idea of wilding, of wildness, makes me all shivery. I want to say bring it back, bring it all back, whatever we can restore, it's our responsibility to restore it, to try to make all of the wrong we've done if not right, then at least a little less wrong. But for re-wilding to be real, for it to work, we, and I mean we as all of us, need to be willing to have some hard conversations about humanity and land and nature and where we want to be.

Lately there's been a flurry of stories about the removal of the Northern Rockies grey wolf from the endangered species list. A recent article from the BBC discussed plans to reintroduce beavers, wildcats and wolves to Britain. It's a really well-written (though short) article that summarizes a lot of the unease that people have about rewilding urban or suburban areas. Beavers have moved in to both downtown Martinez and the Bronx river in recent years. So, they can live in cities. But what happens when they do? Beavers are, by their nature, ecosystem engineers. Unfortunately, so are we and our plans may be at odds with theirs.

What does it mean to bring animals back? Especially when they haven't just wandered back on their own, but came back specifically because we brought them or explicitly laid out the welcome mat? What is our responsibility to them once they have returned? If we bring back beavers do we need to move our homes to accommodate the wetlands that their dams create? If we bring back salamanders do we need to commit to stopping the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides? Can we welcome raptors back to our cities while simultaneously poisoning their food? What if the nature that we welcome back doesn't play by our rules? What if it nests on the beaches where we like to walk our dogs or spawns near the pumps where we get our drinking water?

There's an artist named Fritz Haeg who's doing what sounds like a fascinating project called Animal Estates addressing this very issue. He just set up his first public estate in New York as part of the Whitney Biennial and will be setting up some creature homes in San Francisco this summer. I'll be interested to see what kinds of conversations his installations provoke.

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