The world is not enough

Sumana Roy | Updated on September 25, 2020 Published on September 25, 2020

How green is my lens: The idea of healing nature by restoring it to a state of pre-human existence is a relatively new one, argues author Emma Marris - ISTOCK.COM   -  Getty Images/iStockphoto

The conservationist’s vision of a pristine natural world is uncomfortably close to the misbegotten notions of purified social bubbles

We get into the car, unsure of where we want to go. We are going out of town and there is only one brief: There shouldn’t be people around us. There are aged people and children in the car, and one of them — the two-year-old — will not keep a mask on. And so we go through rain-eaten roads, the car-ride like one in a fair, bringing joy to the children and annoyance to the adults. Somehow, without our effort or cooperation, the human population thins out, houses get shorter, the distance between each grows wider, and things seen on screens and in picture books for the last few months of house arrest grow to life. The sky has certainly grown fatter — the rain clouds have given it chins and paunches. The sky is on the ground as well, resting on the water that now covers fields. On the margins of these fields are green grass and white kash, restless, taller than us, growing taller even as we pass them by, so that it feels that they’d have touched the sky by the time we return.

At last we find a place that is free of people. The children jump out of the car — the wet soil and the water surrounding it frees them of routine and discipline. They run, they scream in joy, they rush towards the water, from which they are pulled back by their collars. They throw pebbles on the water and clap when the water wakes up from its sleep; they jump when bitten by ants. They pull their feet out of their tiny shoes when wet sand enters them; they run after birds — crows and sparrows and three black ones with orange tails — preparing to fly with them... Soon, though, they have nothing to do. They are unprepared for this — to meet a landscape without humans in it.

I point to dragonflies biting the horizon, to where the ripples go to rest, but their eyes cannot see. This is the closest they will get to a different planet, for that is what it is. Less than an hour from home, into this space surrounded by water, their short enchantment with the unfamiliar is over. Or, as my mother, who is sitting in the car, unable to trust her arthritic feet on wet sand, says — “Their first instalment of wilderness is over”.

The word surprises me. I’ve been reading about it, in Emma Marris’s book Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. Marris very gently displaces the old-world understanding of ‘nature’ and ‘wilderness’ — she shows the post-industrial longing for an unmanned wilderness for what it is: “The cult of pristine wilderness is a cultural construction, and a relatively new one. It was born, like so many creeds, in America”. I’d always been intuitively troubled by this idea of wilderness, one without man in it — not because I consider the human important in such a scene, but because it is engineering that aims for the reversal of history, and is coded with the idea of violence, the most arrogant violence.

Marris tells us about the ‘baseline’ that is common in such a project, and the problem with it: “In the past, a place’s default baseline was often before Europeans arrived. Today, as we learn more about how indigenous inhabitants of places from Australia to the Americas changed their surroundings, it is sometimes set to before any humans arrived. For many conservationists, restoration to a prehuman or pre-European baseline is seen as healing a wound or sick nature. For others it is an ethical duty. We broke it; therefore we must fix it. Baselines thus typically don’t just act as a scientific before to compare with an after. They become the good, the goal, the one correct state”. She takes us through the history of various models of ecosystems used to re-create a sense of ‘wilderness’.

As I read about the animals (called ‘predator’, to distinguish them from ‘native’ species) killed and trees and plant life destroyed and weeded, just to satisfy the human imagination about the past, I couldn’t help thinking of how we would react if the same idea were to be imported to human spaces and populations. The idea of purity that attends such an invention — what else is the idea of pre-human nature if not an invention? — will ravage the sociopolitical world. We are all migrants, we can all be labelled ‘predators’ as so many species in controlled experimental ecosystems in Hawaii, “the extinction capital of the world”, have been. We have all come from elsewhere — the chance to go back to ‘pre-’ times is as tempting to the wilderness enthusiast as it is to governments backed by similar political ideologies. “If,” writes Marris, “we focus only on avoiding extinctions, then we could end up with a zoo-like world where all species are carefully tended by man but are separated from the ecosystems in which they once lived, died, and evolved.”

I am scared about the social wildernesses that many governments are trying to engineer. I am scared of the lies about purity that are turning our countries into zoos.


Sumana Roy, the author of How I Became a Tree, lives in Siliguri;

Twitter: @SumanaSiliguri

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Published on September 25, 2020
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