The Mirage of Pristine Wilderness
Conservationists and ecologists say pristine wilderness is impossible
One summer day, I went with my father and daughter to Schmitz Park in West Seattle, famous for being among the only chunks of old-growth forest within city limits. A few urban noises penetrated the 50-acre park, mostly airplanes and boat horns. But it was markedly quiet—and beautiful. The turf was springy with a thousand layers of needles. Creeks wended their way under fallen logs. Ferns and firs and hemlock quietly photosynthesized, cradled by the debris of dead trees. And all around us, right along the trail, were bushes heavily laden with red huckleberries. I ate a couple and gave several to my toddler—something I probably wouldn't have done five years ago, when I took more seriously the solemn duty not to besmirch natural areas, especially old-growth forests, with my human presence.
As a kid growing up in Seattle, I was proud of the Northwest's old-growth forests. We still had pristine wilderness, while the people of the Midwest and East Coast had used theirs all up. It made me feel smug.
But, of course, it isn't that simple. For the last several years, I've been writing about ecologists and conservationists coming to terms with the fact that "pristine wilderness" is a mirage. Climate change, pollution, species movements, land-use changes—we've transformed the whole globe for good, every inch of it. And even if we could undo all that we've done, what would we go back to? Prehistoric humans changed landscapes much more than we once believed. And paleoecologists are teaching us to see familiar ecosystems not as eternal, unchanging, harmonious wholes so much as accidental, ephemeral aggregations—ships passing in the night in geological time. There never was a one right time, the ecologists say—no Garden of Eden.
A year or so ago, I interviewed Feng Sheng Hu, a paleoecologist at the University of Illinois in Urbana. He explained that the Northwest's old-growth forests present a puzzle. Not because they are so old—because they're so young. The very oldest gray, grand, massive Douglas firs in the region are about 700 years old. But their normal lifespan extends to 1,200 years, making those wise grandfathers just a titch over middle-aged. The reason, said Hu, was that the climate has only been cool enough for them for 700 years. Go further back, and you find yourself in a hotter time called the Medieval Warm Period, when frequent fires would have kept any Doug-fir forests from reaching a ripe old age. A mere 700 years ago, there were already people living in the Northwest. As Hu spoke, my pride was instantly shattered. The vaunted old-growth forest ecosystem wasn't even one tree-generation old. It didn't predate human settlement. It wasn't unchanging. It was... what? Just a forest?
So as I walked through this little scrap of urban old growth, my daughter on my back, I was thinking hard about my emotional reaction. I wanted to see if it felt any different now that I know that old-growth forest isn't the timeless, unchanging, right ecosystem I once believed it to be.
Among the skunk cabbage and black mud and moss and lichen, the big trees still seemed impressive, solid, silent—detached but somehow tender. I realized that even after we learn that old-growth ecosystems aren't necessarily that old, the trees are still really, really big.
Then my father spoke. "We came here when you were tiny," he said cheerfully. "You were still mastering walking longer distances, and I think you walked all the way up the trail." This, then, was presumably back in the early 1980s, when my parents were still together. I felt a stab of nostalgia for my childhood, and my train of thought switched tracks. You can't go home again, I thought. That's the message of all this new research. First you learn that you can't go back, and then you learn that there never was a home to go back to. Everything is always in flux; any date you pick is arbitrary, whether it is before or after Columbus, before or after we killed off the mammoths and giant ground sloths, before or after the logging industry began in the Pacific Northwest around 1850. And it is sad. I've written a whole book arguing that ditching the "pristine wilderness" idea is empowering and liberating because it allows us to look to the future and create more nature instead of clinging to disappearing scraps of seemingly untouched land. That's still true. But it is also reasonable to grieve for the loss of a beautiful, simple ideal.
Dad and I made a list of the reasons Schmitz Park is valuable. "It is a rare ecosystem type in the city," I said. "And it is beautiful. And there are really big trees." "And," he said, "no one has ever changed it." My first impulse was to pooh-pooh this as yet another manifestation of the counterproductive obsession with pristine wilderness. And certainly it isn't strictly true. Some trees were taken out before it was protected, and volunteers are fiddling with it all the time, removing exotic species and planting native seedlings. But he's right that it stands out from a sea of bungalows and coffee shops and sidewalks and docks, a green swath with big old trees. Maybe not old enough to impress Hu and maybe not pristine. But big and old, goddamn it. Big and old. A good place to let yourself mourn a little for the Eden that never was, for the early childhood you remember only hazily through photographs. A good place to feed the kid some berries. Other people may be too scared to eat them, or too respectful to touch them, but I have given up worshiping wilderness in favor of tasting it.
This essay first appeared in High Country News.