Chapter 3. Toward an Ecological Conversation
The chickadee was oblivious to its surroundings and seemed almost machine-like, if enfeebled, in its single-minded concentration: take a seed, deliver a few futile pecks, then drop it; take a seed, peck-peck-peck, drop it; take a seed . . . The little bird, with its unsightly, disheveled feathers, almost never managed to break open the shell before losing its talons' clumsy grip on the seed. I walked up to its feeder perch from behind and gently tweaked its tail feathers. It didn't notice.
My gesture was, I suppose, an insult, although I felt only pity for this creature pity for the hopeless obsession driving it in its weakened state. There were several sick chickadees at my feeder that winter a few years ago, and I began to learn why some people view feeding stations themselves as an insult to nature. A feeder draws a dense, "unnatural" population of birds to a small area. This not only encourages the spread of disease, but also evokes behavioral patterns one might never see in a less artificial habitat.
And if feeders are problematic, what was I to think of my own habit of sitting outside for long periods and feeding birds from my hands? Especially during the coldest winter weather and heavy snowfalls, I sometimes found myself mobbed by a contentious crowd, which at different times included not only chickadees but also titmice, red- and white-breasted nuthatches, hairy woodpeckers, goldfinches, juncos, blue jays, cardinals, various sparrows, and a red-bellied woodpecker. To my great delight, several of the less wary species would perch on shoulders, shoes, knees, and hat, as well as hands.
But by what right do I encourage tameness in creatures of the wild? The classic issue here has to do with how we should assess our impacts upon nature. Two views, if we drive them to schematic extremes for purposes of argument, conveniently frame the debate:
On one side, with an eye to the devastation of ecosystems worldwide, we can simply try to rid nature of all human influence. The sole ideal is pristine, untouched wilderness. The human being, viewed as a kind of disease organism within the biosphere, should be quarantined as far as possible. Call this radical preservationism.
On the other side, impressed by our society's growing technical sophistication, we can urge the virtues of scientific management to counter the various ongoing threats to nature. Higher-yielding, genetically engineered vegetables, fruits, grains, livestock, fish, and trees intensively monocropped and cultivated with industrial precision can, we're told, supply human needs on reduced acreages, with less environmental impact. Cloning technologies may save endangered species or even bring back extinct ones. Clever chemical experimentation upon the atmosphere could change the dynamic of global warming or ozone depletion.
Managerial strategies more appealing to many environmentalists include reintroduction of locally extinct species, collaring of wild animals for tracking and study, controlled predation by humans, and widespread use of bird nesting boxes practices that have aided in the recovery of some threatened species, even if their lives now must follow altered patterns.
The problem with scientific management, founded as it is on the hope of successful prediction and control, is that complex natural systems have proven notoriously unpredictable and uncontrollable. Ecologists, writes Jack Turner in The Abstract Wild, keep "hanging on to the hope of better computer models and more information." But their hope is forlorn:
The "preservation as management" tradition that began with [Aldo] Leopold is finished because there is little reason to trust the experts to make intelligent long-range decisions about nature. . . . If an ecosystem can't be known or controlled with scientific data, then why don't we simply can all the talk of ecosystem health and integrity and admit, honestly, that it's just public policy, not science?
"The limits of our knowledge," he adds, "should define the limits of our practice." We should refuse to mess with wilderness for the same reason we should refuse, beyond certain limits, to mess with the atom or the structure of DNA. "We are not that wise, nor can we be."
Turner's critique of the ideal of scientific management is not unlike my own. But, as is usually the case with pitched battles between opposing camps, the real solution to the dispute between radical preservationists and scientific managers requires us to escape the assumptions common to both. Why, after all, does Turner agree with his opponents that acceptable "messing" with ecosystems would have to be grounded in successful prediction and control?
Once we make this assumption, we are likely either to embrace such calculated control as a natural extension of our technical reach, or else reject it as impossible. And yet, when I sit with the chickadees, messing with their habitat, it does not feel like an exercise in prediction and control. My aim is to get to know the birds, and to understand them. Maybe this makes a difference.
It is certainly true, in one sense or another, that "the limits of our knowledge should define the limits of our practice." But we need to define the sense carefully. By what practice can we extend our knowledge, if we may never act without already possessing perfect knowledge?
Our inescapable ignorance mandates great caution a fact our society has been reluctant to accept. Yet we cannot make any principle of caution absolute. The physician who construes the precept "First, do no harm" as an unambiguous and definitive rule can no longer act at all, because only perfect prediction and control could guarantee the absence of harm. Those of us who urge precaution must not bow before the technological idols we are trying to smash. We can never perfectly know the consequences of our actions because we are not dealing with machines. We are called to live between knowledge and ignorance, and it is as dangerous to make ignorance the excuse for radical inaction as it is to found action upon the boast of perfect knowledge.
There is an alternative to the ideal of prediction and control. It helps, in approaching it, to recognize the common ground beneath scientific managers and those who see all human "intrusion" as pernicious. Both camps regard nature as a world in which the human being cannot meaningfully participate. To the advocate of pristine wilderness untouched by human hands, nature presents itself as an inviolable and largely unknowable Other; to the would-be manager, nature is a collection of objects so disensouled and unrelated to us that we can take them as a mere challenge for our technological inventiveness. Both stances deprive us of any profound engagement with the world that nurtured us.
My own hope for the future lies in a third way. Perhaps we have missed this hope because it is too close to us. Each of us participates in at least one domain where we grant the autonomy and infinite worth of the Other while also acting boldly to affect and sometimes even rearrange the welfare of the Other. I mean the domain of human relations.
We do not view the sovereign individuality and inscrutability of our fellows as a reason to do nothing that affects them. But neither do we view them as mere objects for a technology of control.
How do we deal with them? We engage them in conversation.