Introducing a new column: Back to Nature

by Dennis Burton
Posted 2/12/21

The year 2021 begins the United Nations’ “Decade of Ecological Restoration,” or the UN Decade. The premise is that saving the planet requires healthy ecosystems.

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Introducing a new column: Back to Nature


The year 2021 begins the United Nations’ “Decade of Ecological Restoration,” or the UN Decade. The premise is that saving the planet requires healthy ecosystems. An ecosystem is a biological community, flora and fauna, and its physical environment, such as meadows, oak-hickory forests, riparian corridors, and coastal plains. Healthy ecosystems require diversity and connectivity: Many different types of flora and fauna supporting the proverbial balance of nature. Remove one element – the oak trees, the milkweeds, the wolves, the hawks – and the balance begins to teeter. Remove several and the balance could crumble. But this is not about doom and gloom, this is about restoration and our role in it.

The UN Decade links the original Earth Day mantra, “Think Globally, Act Locally,” to the ecological restoration mantra, “Everything is Connected to Everything.” It goes on to explain that there has never been a more urgent need to restore damaged ecosystems, which can reduce poverty, combat climate change, and prevent mass extinction: It’s objective then is to “prevent, halt, and reverse the degradation of ecosystems on every continent and in every ocean.” Lofty goals to say the least, but who could argue about their necessity? These goals can only be achieved if everyone gets involved.

The concept of conserving nature that led to the practice of ecological restoration began in 1903 when Theodore Roosevelt stood on the rim of the Grand Canyon and declared: “Leave it as it is,” thus saving that magnificent landscape from being mined for its mineral wealth. Other conservation visionaries, John Muir, Edward Abbey et al, acted similarly to help create a system of national parks, monuments and preserves, and still others, Rachael Carson, Bill McKibben, Elizabeth Kolbert, brought public attention to environmental threats. Their insight and action brought awareness to the public that some 90% of the lower 48 states’ ecosystems have been developed or altered and will require concerted efforts to restore ecological function and wildlife habitat.

Ecological restoration as a discipline and science began with Aldo Leopold in 1935 on an 80-acre tract of degraded farmland in Wisconsin. He envisioned those acres as a complex of restored prairie, savannah and marshland that existed before being plowed under. He recorded the efforts in his masterpiece, “A Sand County Almanac” and hoped to inspire a new land ethic where people would be citizens of the natural world rather than the natural world’s conquerors. “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise,” he stated.

 The culmination of these ideas and actions brings us to Edward O. Wilson, a prolific biologist, evolutionary psychologist, sociobiologist, two-time Pulitzer prize winner, and author of over twenty books, including “The Diversity of Life,” 1992, and his latest, “Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life,” 2016. In it he states, “There can be no purpose more inspiring than to begin the age of restoration, reweaving the wondrous diversity of life that still surrounds us.” “Half Earth” boldly proposes saving half the planet for nature and half for humans, not a modest proposal, but could be accomplished if we don’t think in terms of fractions. And that brings us to the purpose of this column.

Douglas Tallamy, Professor of Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, wrote “Bringing Nature Home,” 2007. That book explored the decline of wildlife and species extinction and proposed that those trends could be reversed by planting native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers. His latest book, “Nature’s Best Hope,” 2019, directs those proposals to Edward O. Wilson’s half Earth vision. Tallamy lays out practical actions, for all of us, that won’t separate humans from nature, but rather re-integrate humans with nature by developing a new conservation and land ethic for the 21st Century by recognizing that “conservation [and restoration] is everyone’s responsibility.”

This column will examine the means of integrating humans and nature and suggest practical approaches for individuals, you, and I, to become involved. We will consider how to create small scale landscapes, in our yards, on a terrace, in small parks and wood lots, that enhance the function of local ecosystems. As we do so, we will witness the return of complex food webs, an improvement of soil, and the return of wildlife, especially pollinators and those that prey on them, bringing us all back to nature.

Dennis Burton is the former director of the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education. He is a master gardener and the author of “Nature Walks of Central Park.”

Back to Nature, environment