Dear environmentalists, there is no such thing as 'pristine wilderness'

Seattle-born writer Emma Marris explains why 'pristine wilderness' only exists in our imaginations, and how we can get over our mental roadblock to create a multi-faceted, working form of northwest naturalism.

Crosscut archive image.

The author, on the Duwamish River.

Seattle-born writer Emma Marris explains why 'pristine wilderness' only exists in our imaginations, and how we can get over our mental roadblock to create a multi-faceted, working form of northwest naturalism.

Adapted from a post at The Last Word on Nothing and from Marris's new book, Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature In a Post-Wild World.

My friend Taya and I were out at her parents’ country place, about twelve acres in the western foothills of the Cascades. I was maybe eight, visiting for the first time. Taya was taking me on a tour. We were struggling along, as short-legged people do through dense, early successional Northwest forest. She stopped and took hold of a small sapling. “This,” she said, “is the difference between our land and a park.” And then, shockingly, she stepped on the sapling until it was bowed in two and then snapped it with her boot, killing it dead. Or maybe she ripped it out of the ground with her two hands — she was a very strong girl, I remember. I don’t remember the details of the act. But I do remember that she killed a tree and also the sensation of my mind being blown right out my ears. (Taya’s childhood arbor-cide didn’t presage sociopathy or anything close to it. She’s now a vet.)

I was a city kid, so well schooled in the “leave no trace” ethos of wilderness preservation by school and camp that the idea of killing a tree . . . it wasn’t that it was wrong. It was that I had never even considered the possibility. Nature was, to me, inviolate, unchanging, ancient, and pure. Pristine. It was better than God — less judgmental, more fun to play in, but just as serious and Big.

For a while, I went up with Taya and her parents almost every weekend — or so it seems to me now. And as we played in those woods, it ceased to be the Big Pristine to me. It became, instead, a familiar friend. Taya and I sought out springy tree limbs to use as bouncing seats, made expeditions to nearby notable rocks, and built tiny worlds out of sticks and plants in the suggestive architectural spaces of rotting stumps. I particularly relished making trails. Taya’s dad lent me a pint-sized machete and taught me how to wield it.

I know now that the forest on the property was decidedly not old growth; it had been logged as recently as the 1950s. In amongst the slender alders, thorny salmon berries, and sword ferns dusty with golden spores were massive stumps of giant cedars that had once grown there. I recall that some of them had notches in their great grey sides where the springboards had been fitted. I played, then, in a trash forest, a weedy place left behind after the good stuff was gone, no doubt rife with scotch broom and other invasive species.

Ecologists and conservationists have long ignored such forests. In thrall to the lure of “pristine wilderness,” they shunned second growth. But that’s beginning to change. After half a dozen years reporting on conservation, mostly for Nature, I have learned that The Big Pristine doesn’t exist. Doesn’t now, didn’t ever. Around the world, prehistoric humans have had far greater impact on ecosystems than we ever knew. And climate change means that every place, old growth and trash alike, are now changed by humanity’s presence.

Conservation approaches that move beyond fealty to the Big Pristine are starting to find a place alongside older approaches centered on putting walls around protected areas and keeping hands off. More and more you hear talk of moving species to deal with climate change, or just to find homes for homeless species—particularly in places where similar species have gone extinct. More and more conservation projects are set in cities or on farms. Nature has become less sacrosanct, and conservation is learning to become more interventionist. It is a bona fide paradigm shift, and it is fascinating to watch it happen. I’d like to think that the time I had as a child to pay such close attention to the vibrancy and beauty of that second growth forest prepared me to document it.

One much more recent summer afternoon I bobbed on the waters of a river with an Indian name, watching a kingfisher dive for fish. Osprey perched nearby, and a few feet from my kayak a salmon jumped with an impressive splash. Was I on the Sol Duc River in Olympic National Park, perhaps, or deep in the coastal rainforest of British Columbia?

No. I was in the heart of Seattle, on a five-mile stretch of the Duwamish River lined with industrial operations and designated in 2001 as a Superfund site thanks to all the toxins in the mud. From my yellow boat I could see the Needle and skyline, as well as Boeing’s famous Plant Two, where a dozen B-17 bombers were built every day during World War II. That plant has since been demolished as part of the cleanup effort. Eventually they plan to install salmon-friendly habitat, including gradually sloping banks and pocket side channels to the river, which salmon can use as rest stops as they migrate up the river to spawn.

The Duwamish River is a mess, but the wildlife that frequents it shows that it has promise. What’s interesting is the vision its supporters have for it. None of them are talking about restoring it to the way it was when Europeans first settled in Seattle in the 1850s. None of them are pushing for it to be made into a park. Instead, they see a hybrid future for the Duwamish — part habitat, part active industrial waterway.

Plant Two’s windows glowed rosy in the setting sun, and from the water I could see how the massive building extended out over the river on pilings. “All the oil and toxic chemicals involved leaked through the floorboards,” said Cari Simson, then a staffer at the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, who balanced in her own kayak as planes taking off from SeaTac airport roared low overhead. “All this mud is filled with heavy metals.”

Simson pointed out restored areas along the shore with obvious pleasure. But she doesn’t want every stretch of the river to follow suit. The low-income neighborhoods on either side of the Duwamish could use the jobs that an active industrial waterway can provide. And activists like Simson want to have it both ways. The Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition has an “eco-industrial vision” for the river. It’s a tall order for a river mostly hidden behind defunct cement factories and huge Boeing buildings, a river currently lined with signs warning against consuming the river’s fish and shellfish in English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, and Russian, just to be safe.

But the entities that will have to clean up the river under the complex Superfund process, including the City of Seattle, the Port of Seattle, King County, and Boeing, share the hybrid vision for the river, or at least they claim to. Major cleanup actions won’t begin for a few years, and it remains an open question how clean the Duwamish will get.

In the meantime, as my short kayak trip up the Duwamish demonstrated, the seeds of this vision are already present between defunct operations rusting in the drizzle. Sure, much of the shoreline is a wild tangle of blackberries and butterfly bush growing on heavily contaminated muck, but there are also thriving businesses and restored sites, like the mouth of Hamm Creek — for many years better described as Hamm Pipe, a culvert that unceremoniously dumped into the river. Now the pipe is gone, and a “daylighted” creek softly flows into the Duwamish through a lacy scrim of reeds and grasses patrolled by herons. The vegetation that has been planted here feeds baby salmon and provides habitat for birds. Downstream we floated by a cozily seedy marina where hip young artists live aboard their boats and past Delta Marine, a luxury yacht maker. Farther still, people waved to us from a series of tiny street-end parks that look out over the river.

New conservation approaches that do not attempt to return nature to an exact replica of the past include rewilding with proxies — which focuses on restoring processes like grazing or predation or seed disperal, but uses species new to the system to carry out these roles, managed relocation of species at risk of extinction due to climate change, and embracing some exotic species, when they don’t interfere with our conservation goals. They may seem like disparate strategies, but they are all at some level about making the most out of every scrap of land and water, no matter its condition. To make the most of our protected areas, we must think beyond their boundaries and complement our wildernesses with conservation everywhere else too, from industrial rivers like the Duwamish to the roofs of buildings and farmer’s fields.

Some optical illusions, like the illustration that can be a rabbit or a duck depending on how you look at it, rely on a gestalt switch. You see an image one way, unable to see the other possibility, and then suddenly your brain flips and sees it the other way. A protected-areas-only, pristine-wilderness only view of conservation sees a globe with a few shrinking islands of nature on it. Nature is the foreground, human-dominated lands the background. The new view, after the gestalt switch, sees impervious surfaces — pavement, houses, malls where nothing can grow — as the foreground and everything else as the background nature.

This background nature comes in different flavors, to be sure, from vast fields of genetically identical corn to city parks to the last hectares of South America’s Atlantic Forest, where tiny golden lion tamarins swing from the trees. Not all this land is equally valuable to most conservation goals, but all of it can be improved. Those cornfields can grow strips of native plants on their edges; those city parks can provide food for migrating butterflies. Thus the project of conservation is not just defending what we have, but adding lands to our portfolio and deepening the value of the lands in play. This will not only require a change in our values, but a change in our very aesthetics, as we learn to accept both nature that looks a little more lived-in and working spaces that look a little more wild.

My unscientific guess is that upwards of 80 percent of ecologists and conservationists first learned to love nature in places that weren’t pure, pristine, or wild: Culverts in cul de sacs, empty lots, summer camps on formerly logged land, hedgerows, and the weedy margins of agricultural fields. We loved them as kids, and now we are learning to love them again as scientists and environmentalists. It is a kind of homecoming.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors