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Topic: Flora & Fauna     Department: Letters

Parsing 'Pristine'

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The thing that bothered me most about Emma Marris' essay was the suggestion toward the end that we should "look to the future and create more nature instead of clinging to disappearing scraps of seemingly untouched land" (HCN, 10/6/2011, "The mirage of the pristine").  How exactly does she propose that we go about creating nature?

I think most scientists would define a particular system as pristine if its composition, structure and function is essentially unaltered by man. It would be foolish to discount the value of unmanaged or primitive ecosystems as biological resources, living laboratories and sources of a wealth of scientific information about how things work, how nature has evolved and how we can do a better job of managing and growing products that we use every day.

In restoration ecology, we commonly design treatments based on conditions that are found within forests and streams that have not been cleared of wood. We know that unmanaged or old-growth forests are far more complex and diverse than tree plantations -- the primary form of nature that we have created to replace the forests that we have clearcut.

I grew up in southern Illinois, in a region of the country that has been almost entirely converted to agricultural production. There are no native prairies left in Illinois. In order to maintain the manufactured landscape that we have created, we pump increasing amounts of nitrogen fertilizer into the soil and invent a never-ending progression of hybrids and genetically modified crops capable of resisting disease and infestation. Much of the biological and genetic diversity that could have provided a stable and ecologically resilient base for our food supply has been eliminated from the landscape.  I see the same thing happening here to a lesser extent. Fortunately, in the Northwest we have national parks and wilderness areas.

Stephen Kropp
Renton, Washington

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