A Swamp Forest Grows in Brooklyn

Photo: Kenta Nagai

IT’S A BRIGHT SUNDAY MORNING during the fall migration in New York City. A small group convenes in Highland Park, a plateau of greenery straddling the border between Brooklyn and Queens. Most of the fifteen or so people — retirement age, in mesh hats, with binoculars slung round their necks — are of the urban genus known as Birder. A few obvious outsiders lack binoculars: a young reporter from the Queens TimesLedger (“Nothing else is happening today,” he says), a Queens woman with her tween daughter, a choreographer, and me and my boyfriend, Bob. The equipment shortage is soon rectified: two New York City Urban Park Rangers in khakis, utility belts, and Smokey-the-Bear hats arrive and begin handing out binoculars.

“This is a bird walk?” Bob asks, looking betrayed.

I convinced him to get up early and take the subway to Highland Park by telling him we were going to see some decommissioned hydroinfrastructure. Bob loves hydroinfrastructure. Birds he can take or leave.

Kids climb on playground equipment nearby and a radio loudly preaches the morning’s sermon. Twenty feet away, the Q56 bus zooms down Jamaica Avenue, sounding like a small boy revving an imaginary race car. As the rangers introduce themselves, the birders, in unison, begin slathering on sunscreen.

“I can’t wait to see the reservoir,” the Queens woman announces. “I haven’t been here since I was a kid. We used to come and swim in it. The helicopters would chase us away.” It isn’t clear if she understands that the reservoir no longer holds much water. Built for Brooklyn in 1856, Ridgewood Reservoir occupies a large chunk of Highland Park. Since being closed and mostly drained in 1989, it has become a lively habitat for birds, frogs, salamanders, plants, and trees. It has also become the site of an unusual standoff: community residents versus parks.

“Ranger Kate” introduces Jennifer Monson, the choreographer. Jennifer, who has spent much of the last several years on a dance project about the reservoir, has offered to enhance the bird walk with a short series of movement exercises meant to get everyone thinking like a migrating bird. She starts by trying to help us locate ourselves in space.

“Close your eyes,” she says. “Now listen for something very close to you.”

Peering surreptitiously through my eyelashes, I see Bob, who hates the sun, easing himself into the shade of a streetlamp. He’s thin, so this maneuver actually works.

“Now listen for something far away,” Jennifer instructs the group. “What’s the farthest thing you can hear?”

The nearest and the farthest thing I can hear are the same: the radio, now cranked up and blasting CD 101.9. “Smooth jazz for relaxing on the weekend,” a suave male voice intones.

“Now, keeping your eyes closed, turn and face north,” Jennifer says. I peek again. All the birders but one are facing north.

RIDGEWOOD RESERVOIR is a curious new kind of landscape. This is not a park, or a piece of preserved nature, but a previously developed area in the process of reverting to wildness. Urban wildernesses tend to happen by mistake. In a city like New York, where space is at such a premium that former synagogues, sugar factories, and schools have all been reborn as luxury condos, a wilderness can only be the result of inattention.

Ridgewood Reservoir is the recipient of such benign neglect. Originally built to store water from wells and ponds on Long Island for Brooklyn, the three-basin, 100-million-gallon reservoir came under the control of New York City’s Board of Water Supply when the five boroughs united in 1898. It continued to provide Long Island water to Brooklyn throughout the early twentieth century, but development on Long Island was compromising water sources, and fast-growing New York was already looking elsewhere to slake its thirst. The Croton Water System, delivering water from upstate Westchester and Putnam counties, was completed in 1911; the Catskill System was finished in 1927; and the last of the Delaware System’s four massive reservoirs, capable of supplying half the current demand, came online in 1965. The first Catskill water — the “champagne of drinking waters” — came to Brooklyn in 1917, and from then on, as upstate aqueducts and tunnels came into service, Ridgewood Reservoir gradually became obsolete. By 1960, it was demoted to backup, and in 1989, the city decommissioned it and drained two of its three basins. It sat forgotten — by humans anyway — until 2004, when it was signed over to the Department of Parks and Recreation. And that’s when things got interesting.

SOMETIME IN THE EARLY 1990s, Jennifer Monson stumbled upon the reservoir. She lived in the nearby Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick and often biked or walked her dog in Highland Park, using the path that rings the reservoir’s basins. At the time, she was working on Bird Brain Migrations, a multiyear effort she calls a “navigational dance touring project.” In it, Monson and small groups of dancers traveled North America, Cuba, Mexico, and Guatemala, following the migration paths of birds and gray whales. Bringing together community groups, conservationists, and the public, the dancers offered panel discussions, dance workshops, and free, site-specific performances that sought to reconnect communities with their local habitats and the migrating animals that used them. They brought plants indoors and performed dances outdoors, trying to help people see their own locales in a new light.

After Bird Brain, Monson returned to Brooklyn. She felt a desire to focus on a single place. “The traveling was inter-esting, but we were always in the same season,” she says.

“I wanted to be in one place and notice how it changes over the year.”

Then someone took her down into the reservoir she had walked and biked around for years. The moment she stepped into what seemed to be an untamed swamp forest right in the middle of New York City, she was hooked. Her interest only increased when she began to learn about the controversies over the reservoir’s future.

ON THE BIRD HIKE, the group completes Monson’s exercises. The rangers then lead us through the park and up some ramshackle cement steps punctuated by shattered, akimbo street lamps. Designed in the 1890s, Highland Park has stately trees and winding paths, but years of hard use and tight budgets have taken a toll. The stairs lead up a hill at the park’s north side to an asphalt path that rings the reservoir. Bicyclists and joggers are in evidence. As soon as the birders have all arrived, as if on cue, an osprey sails in a wide circle overhead. Fifteen pairs of binoculars veer upward. Slightly lower, a broad-winged hawk crosses the sky.

Immediately, the level of enthusiasm among the birders rises. Field guides are produced, and as the walk proceeds, a group of catbirds is spotted in the bittersweet that overflows the chain-link fence enclosing the reservoir. Two members of the group, however, seem disgruntled: Bob, who’s been told that the park rangers will not allow anyone to go down into the reservoir, and the Queens woman, who has realized that her former swimming hole is now filled with brush, saplings, and trees.

“I can’t believe this,” she keeps saying, in the tone of a Puritan minister arriving on the set of Gossip Girl. It’s understandable. The scrubby trees and undergrowth beyond the fence lack both the grandeur of an established wilderness and the picturesque order of a garden. The young forest looks like what it is: something unattended, gone to seed.

She and Bob both perk up, however, when the rangers partially relent and pull aside a piece of chain-link fence so the group can squeeze through onto the platform of the reservoir’s decrepit pump house. From there, we look south across the middle basin, the only one that still holds water. Its edges are choked with phragmites. In the sky beyond, a 767 lumbers up from John F. Kennedy International Airport. And there, centered on the shallow pond, are two coots and a wood duck, floating serenely in parti-colored glory.

In 2004, when the Parks Department announced plans to make the former reservoir into a park, there was celebration. But three years later, as they launched the design process, something surprising happened. At community meetings, the city’s $46 million plan to upgrade the reservoir with a running track, a cricket pitch, and athletic fields was met with attitudes ranging from lukewarm to hostile.

“We totally reject the idea that the Ridgewood Reservoir should be turned into a conventional park,” Paul Kerzner, president of the Ridgewood Property Owners and Civic Association told the New York Daily News. “Migratory birds have been using the site for at least thirty years. This is their Holiday Inn. Why take it away from them?”

In June 2007, the Department of Parks and Recreation hosted a “community listening session” on the future of the reservoir. Attendees were divided into teams and given templates of the area, along with cardboard cutouts of recreational facilities: baseball diamonds, tennis courts, running tracks, cricket pitches, and more. Each team was to place the facilities they wanted on the reservoir space.

To the surprise of many attendees, the teams showed little interest in the recreational facilities. One team refused to place any. Another suggested a nature center instead. A third team insisted nothing ought to be decided without environmental studies, and a fourth suggested leaving two basins untouched and adding only a skateboard park to the third. The only recreational facility that got any enthusiasm from the final team was an indoor swimming pool. Rob Jett, a birder–attendee with a blog called Save Ridgewood Reservoir, noted that the community seemed to realize something the Parks Department didn’t. “The Department of Parks and Recreation wants to create a world class destination in Ridgewood,” he wrote in his blog; “what they don’t realize is that it already exists.”

In New York City, there have traditionally been two competing schools of thought about parks, each the legacy of a powerful man. There’s the Frederick Law Olmsted legacy, which holds that parks are relief from urban life, landscapes designed to soothe the city-dweller’s spirit and inspire the higher emotions evoked by nature. And there’s the Robert Moses legacy, which sees parks as recreational outlets, places where the poor and middle class can let off steam and engage in wholesome activities like sports and swimming. To Olmsted, the urban dweller required temples to the spirit; to Moses, the masses needed to get off their — couches, let’s say. Neither of these points of view is about ecological value. Neither considers other creatures who might use urban greenery: birds, amphibians, small mammals. And neither attributes value to simply coexisting with an untamed place. Even Olmsted, who saw landscape as spiritually vital, felt that only a certain kind of landscape could perform the work of urban amelioration and social reform: the rolling fields, stately trees, and sweeping prospects of the English pastoral. This carefully defined aesthetic would inspire the moral sentiments and genteel behavior he wanted to instill in the public. His parks reflect this taste beautifully: plop a manor house down at the end of Central Park’s mall and it would look right at home.

At their listening session, the Parks Department was getting push-back on their essentially Moses-school vision for the Ridgewood Reservoir. But that push-back wasn’t coming from the Olmsted school. It was coming from a completely new school, one that saw unmanaged nature itself as a “world class destination.” Less concerned with utility than ecology, this community seemed to value nature just for itself — even, surprisingly, when they were technically barred from it.

A few days after the bird walk, I come back to the reservoir with Jennifer and her dance group. I’m here to see a rehearsal of their performance, and also to trespass. In the parking lot, Jennifer introduces me to the three dancers and the performance’s sound designer, and I follow them up the stairs to the reservoir path. We walk around the fence to a gap on its far side, where we slip through and scramble down the sloped rock wall. The dancers do this with the agility you would expect of dancers. I try to appear equally agile, but eventually, clutching slim tree trunks and sliding down gravelly bits, settle for not killing myself.

At the bottom, the floor of the reservoir is dirt. Stands of skinny birches and aspens intermingle with carpets of moss and thickets of pokeweed and Japanese knotweed. Small maples are dotted about. Much of what grows here is what you would expect to find in the now-vanished Long Island swamp forest that provided the reservoir’s original water: it’s an ecosystem transplanted by infrastructure. There are signs of other trespassers too: broken glass, discarded cans, forts, and paint globs attest
to the basin’s attraction for paintball fans. Homeless people sometimes camp out in the reservoir, Jennifer tells me, but they favor a different basin.

The little group knows exactly where it is going. They always use the same spot, to minimize their impact on the landscape. They weave their way in and out through the trees and brush to a small clearing. Backpacks are dropped, sweatshirts pulled off, and everyone stands in a circle, chatting quietly, a moment that organically grows into the warm-up exercise. Like the birders, the dancers close their eyes, locating themselves in space.

I sink down onto the dry ground under a birch. The leafy, twiggy detritus has a slightly sweet smell. The wind comes up and the skinny birches sway in turn like sports fans doing the wave. A catbird meows. Then a long, high whistle passes by to the north: an Amtrak train gliding through Queens. The dancers move fluidly to their starting spots and begin a slow series of movements, long and dragged out, like changes in the landscape.

THERE IS SOME PRECEDENT for letting old industrial sites or infrastructure return to a wild state. The famous Ruhr district — once the center of German coal and steel production — is now one of the world’s largest postindustrial landscapes. Many of the region’s mines and factories were dismantled by the Allies after World War II; others were demolished in the wake of globalization and the decline of traditional manufacturing in Europe. But in 1996, the Projekt Industriewald Ruhrgebiet (Industrial Forest Project of the Ruhr) began converting some sites into parklands and nature preserves, with natural succession woodlands allowed to slowly disassemble the built environment.

These rewilded woodlands are a new kind of landscape, with new meanings. They suggest to the visitor not an untouched, prehuman world, but a reverted, posthuman one. That creates an interesting tension. Critics point out that there can be a “stigma” attached to such places: they symbolize economic decline as well as natural resilience. These landscapes also counter the ideal of historic preservation, which uses restoration to freeze time. Instead, they yield to decay, drawing the viewer’s attention to time’s relentless arrow.

Critics of the Ruhr project worried that visitors would find the new parks depressing. They haven’t. In fact, visitors seem to take special pleasure in the contrast between the crumbling built world and the vibrant, new natural one. And it isn’t in spite of the landscape’s implications, but because of them. Visitors enjoying nature’s unmaking of human places are following in the footsteps of the Romantics, who swarmed over ancient ruins and gazed up at the Alps, seeking symbols of human frailty and God’s grandeur. It’s a new take on an old idea: the post-technological sublime.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the famous “Grand Tour” of Europe centered on sublime sights, places that combined beauty and terror to inspire awe for something bigger than man. But once humans had mastered the landscape — waterfalls and rivers harnessed for power, distances conquered by the combustion engine, Earth’s very mysteries unraveled down to the genome — we turned to our own achievements in our quest to feel awe. Sublimity was found in the electrical turbine, the jet engine, the slow-motion explosion of a rocket leaving Earth.

As our eyes have adjusted to the brightness of our triumph, we have also discerned its dark underside. Our drive to control and master the environment has begun to frighten us with its success. Today — witness the paintings of Alexis Rockman or writer Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us — we find an odd comfort in the idea of our ultimate failure. All this is not irreversible, says the post-technological sublime. What we have done can be undone.

“I’M ON A MISSION to re-engage people with their environments,” Monson tells me. In 2004, she created a nonprofit corporation called iLand — Interdisciplinary Laboratory for Art, Nature and Dance — with this purpose. In addition to collaborating with educators, field researchers, and architects on place-based projects, iLand worked with the Parks Department to coordinate a full day of events on the path around Ridgewood Reservoir’s rim in June 2007. Six performers danced from dawn until dusk, park rangers provided information about the unique reservoir ecology, displays reported on a local bird
census and vegetation survey, and kids from a local school performed a dance choreographed by Jennifer. Like her current performance, the dance was designed to make people think about place. What shaped this location? What’s shaping it now?
“Dancing is a more direct understanding of how you affect an environment,” Jennifer says. To help the community understand the connections, she had choreographers available to help visitors interpret the performances. The project was considered a success.

Convinced that people would value the reservoir even more if they could see it from the inside, Jennifer tried to get permission from the Parks Department to do public performances in the reservoir basin. She offered to limit the size of audiences and have everyone sign waivers indemnifying the city. Parks said no. Jennifer is disappointed, but not angry. She herself is torn between a desire to help people appreciate the wild space and a protectiveness toward the new woodland just starting to take root there.

“In June we saw all kinds of young immigrant families out enjoying it,” Jennifer says. “They’re often used to having access to nature, and they need it. But then the way the paintball people destroy it, you don’t want to encourage that. Or the kids you see zipping around on their motorbikes. But they look so wild and powerful, and at least they’re outside doing something. It’s very confusing to me. But I love all those dilemmas.”

Dilemmas are likely to remain in a culture that has a hard time expressing the value in just letting things be. The Parks Department is protective toward the place because they see it as acreage: a new cricket pitch! a pool! Jennifer and many in the community value it for its uniqueness and resilience. But how do you quantify that? The birders, perhaps, do it best. On their blogs they keep lists of birds sighted there: chimney swift, cedar waxwing, yellow warbler, ovenbird, indigo bunting, goldfinch. The list may not be dollarable, but at least it’s a list. If this environment is destroyed, it says, something real will be lost.

IN THE MEANTIME, there can be no official performances of Jennifer’s Ridgewood Reservoir piece. But occasionally she and a small group of invited audience members might meet in the parking lot. They might walk together around the south side of the reservoir basins. Imagine them stopping at one point to admire the view across the middle basin’s water, and at another to look east, across Brooklyn. They squeeze through a hole in the chain-link fence and hold trees and each other’s hands as they scrabble down the reservoir wall. They gather around Jennifer as she recounts the reservoir’s history and tells them the names of the plants and trees. They follow each other through the pathless woods, stopping to touch bracket fungi, or run their hands across furry moss patches. They come to a place where the dancers are standing among the trees, looking as if they grew there. The audience members fall silent and settle themselves onto the ground. Radios wired to a central iPod and placed around them in bushes and trees make an ambient noise, almost indistinguishable from the sounds of the woods itself: the stirring of trees, the chirp of insects, squawks of birds, and behind that, the noise of traffic on the Jackie Robinson Parkway and of helicopters grinding through the sky.

When the dance begins, it’s almost as if the wind stirred it up. The dancers’ legs lift slowly in unison, moving like glaciers carving out a valley. Their chests rise and fall, a pulse that seems to relate to the pulse of the place, water rising and falling in the ground, plants drawing on it to grow. They are barefoot. Their feet stir up little puffs of dust. When they move, they move over and under branches, in and out of sight. At one point, one of them steps up into a tree, as deft as a squirrel. Another one lies down on the ground. Sometimes they shake the trees, and sometimes the trees move on their own, as if joining the dancers in the dance.

Finally, they lie on the ground and simply breathe.

Jennifer Monson grew up in the desert. “I grew up with, don’t touch, don’t pick a flower, leave everything as it is,” she tells me. “But as I come to a more dynamic understanding of the back and forth between human action and natural phenomena, I try to be respectful of the place I’m in, but not to feel other from it. To feel part of it.”

Does a community have to use a place in order to feel part of it? Or might they forge new connections through the radical act of leaving something alone? The dancers claim space as they move. They work out a relationship to the place around them, and they inscribe that relationship with movement and action and breath. So, too, the community around Ridgewood Reservoir will, given the chance, work through their connection to a place that’s part of their past, and their future too.

In the meantime, the place goes on with its own life, growing, changing, replacing human handiwork with a new work-in-progress by nature.

Ginger Strandis the author of three books: Flight, a novel, Inventing Niagara, the untold story of America’s waterfall, and Killer on the Road, a history of the interstate highway system told through the stories of the killers who have haunted it. She has published essays and fiction in many places, including Harper’s, The Believer, The Iowa Review, The New England Review and the New York Times, as well as This Land and Orion, where she is a contributing editor.



  2. Another lovely story which made me smile. A tribute to the power of life, nature, energy, whatever you want to call it, to adapt and profit from and nourish whatever circumstances it finds. Also an encouraging sign that people want it to stay the way it ‘is’ which will change over time. Another kind of biology class for future students, perhaps. Thank you.

  3. I’ve been a nature mystic all my life and I have done many outdoor “sculptures” with natural objects. I love this project. The video will inspire other people to do similar projects where they live, I’m sure.

    What may be needed to make a project like this one work is an elder, someone who embodies the wisdom of the place, who can oversee the various things that might happen there and be sure that whoever comes respects the integrity of the space – which might leave out the paintballers and maybe the motorcycle kids but it might make it possible for a lot of other stuff to happen – like birding and dancing.

    Maybe a grandmother council would do.

  4. Breaking down the barrier between “performer” and “spectator” is part of dissolving separations between human and natural. We all used to dance/sing/make music together with each other –remember?—and with the elements/plants/animals. Then somehow dancing (among so many others), got left to “dancers” while “non-dancers” watched, and (usually) paid their money for the experience.
    This article was a wonderful re-introduction to the exciting truth that we don’t have to just go on accepting barriers and divisions which alienate us!
    Most eveybody physically able, CAN dance and sing together. We can begin there to re-weave our human rhythms once again into the greater Rhythms…

  5. Wildlife Need Habitat Off-Limits to Humans!
    Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.
    October 12, 1997

    “Of what avail are forty freedoms, without a blank spot on the map?” Aldo Leopold

    The Problem

    Human beings think that we own, and have the right to dominate, every square inch of the Earth. That, besides being an absurd idea, is the basic reason why we are losing, worldwide, about 100 species per day. Habitat loss is at the top of every list of the primary reasons why species have become extinct or are in danger of becoming extinct.

    Outright destruction of habitat (for example, paving it or turning it into farms, golf courses, housing developments, or parks) is not the only way that an area can become untenable (useless) as habitat. Anything that makes it unattractive or unavailable to a given species causes habitat loss. Have you ever wondered why most animals run away when we come near? It certainly isn’t because they love having us around! Many animals simply will not tolerate the presence of humans. The grizzly bear and mountain lion are just two examples. The grizzly needs a huge territory, can smell and hear a human being from a great distance, and will avoid going near a road.

    Humans are the ants at every other species’ picnic. One of the first things that children learn about wild animals is that most of them run (fly, swim, slither, hop) away whenever we get close to them. (A few, such as mosquitoes, like having us around.) Some are more tolerant of us than others, but in any given area, there are at least some that don’t like having us around.

    Let’s take as a premise that we do not want to cause any extinctions. I think that most people agree with that. But what follows, is that we have to set aside adequate habitat for all existing species, and that much of it must be human-free. That is not understood by most people, even most biologists. We claim to believe in the Golden Rule, but we apply it only to fellow humans. It has been said that “The measure of a culture is how well it treats its least powerful members”. By this, our own measure, human society is a failure in its relations with the rest of creation.

    In 4 million years of human evolution, there has never been an area off limits to humans — an area which we deliberately choose not to enter so that the species that live there can flourish unmolested by humans. There are places called “wildlife sanctuaries”, where human recreation, hunting, logging, oil drilling, or even mining are usually allowed. There are a few places where only biologists and land managers are allowed (e.g. California’s condor sanctuary). There have been places called “sacred”, where only priests could go (in other words, they were “sacred” only to ordinary people). But to my knowledge, there has never been any place, however small, from which the human community has voluntarily excluded itself.

    There has been a lot of talk in recent years about looking for life on other planets. For its sake, I hope we never find it! Why, after the inconsiderate way we have treated wildlife on this planet, should we be allowed to invade the even more fragile habitats that may be found in other places? While the thought of finding such life is intriguing, I haven’t heard anyone suggest that we consider its feelings and wishes, e.g. the likelihood that it would want to be left alone (quite reasonable, considering our history!). How are we going to communicate with intelligent life on other planets, when we can’t even communicate with the intelligent life on this planet? Besides, since the laws of physics and chemistry are universal, it is unlikely that any such organisms would be dramatically different from those on Earth.

    What scientific evidence do we have that wildlife need to be free of human intrusion? Not much, probably because scientists are people, and like the rest of us are instinctively curious about every thing and every place, and don’t care to be excluded from anywhere. For most of us, travel is just entertainment, but scientists probably see their livelihood and success as depending on being able to travel to any part of the globe and “collect” (i.e., kill) any organism they find there. I doubt that there are many scientific studies of the environmental harm done by the pursuit of science.

    (As recently as 1979 (Wilkins and Peterson, p. 178), we find statements like “Populations of wild animals can have the annual surplus cropped without harm”. Insect field guides, e.g. Powell and Hogue (1979), also recommend collecting insects as “an exciting and satisfying hobby for anyone” (p. 359). Does that mean that collecting grizzlies or tigers is also an acceptable “hobby”?)

    However, there is recent research (e.g. Knight and Gutzwiller, 1995) showing that recreation, even activity traditionally thought of as harmless to wildlife, can be harmful, or even deadly: “Traditionally, observing, feeding, and photographing wildlife were considered to be ‘nonconsumptive’ activities because removal of animals from their natural habitats did not occur…. nonconsumptive wildlife recreation was considered relatively benign in terms of its effects on wildlife; today, however, there is a growing recognition that wildlife-viewing recreation can have serious negative impacts on wildlife” (p. 257). “Activities [involving] nonmotorized travel … [have] caused the creation of more … trails in wildlands…. These activities are extensive in nature and have the ability to disrupt wildlife in many ways, particularly by displacing animals from an area” (p. 56). “Recreational disturbance has traditionally been viewed as most detrimental to wildlife during the breeding season. Recently, it has become apparent that disturbance outside of the animal’s breeding season may have equally severe effects” (p. 73). “People have an impact on wildlife habitat and all that depends on it, no matter what the activity” (p. 157). “Perhaps the major way that people have influenced wildlife populations is through encroachment into wildlife areas” (p. 160). “Recreationists are, ironically, destroying the very thing they love: the blooming buzzing confusion of nature…. The recreation industry deserves to be listed on the same page with interests that are cutting the last of the old-growth forests, washing fertile topsoils into the sea, and pouring billions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere” (p.340). (Note: wildlife have a hard time distinguishing between biologists and recreationists!)

    In other words, if we are to preserve the other species with which we share the Earth, we need to set aside large, interconnected areas of habitat that are entirely off limits to humans (“pure habitat”). Our idea of what constitutes viable habitat is not important; what matters is how the wildlife who live there think. When a road is built through a habitat area, many species will not cross it, even though they are physically capable of doing so. For example, a bird that prefers dense forest may be afraid to cross such an open area where they may be vulnerable to attack by their predators. The result is a loss of habitat: a portion of their preferred mates, foods, and other resources have become effectively unavailable. This can reduce population sizes, cause inbreeding, impoverish their gene pool, and impair their ability to adapt to changing circumstances (such as global warming). It can lead to local (and eventually, final) extinction. Small, isolated populations can easily be wiped out by a fire or other disaster. Other species are not as flexible as we are. We can survive practically anywhere on Earth, and perhaps other places as well!

    What Wildlife Need

    Wildlife are not that different from us. Chimpanzees, for example, are genetically 98% identical with us. Therefore, we should expect that they need just what we need: a place to live that contains all necessary resources (food, water, shelter, potential mates, etc.). It is not too hard to tell when animals are dissatisfied — they vote with their feet; they die, or leave. The key is to look at things from the wildlife’s point of view. As simple and obvious as it sounds, it is rarely done. For example, how often do road builders consider how wildlife will get across the road? My cat communicates clearly what he wants: when he wants to go out, he whines and then goes to the door and stares at the doorknob; when he is hungry, he leads me to the refrigerator or his dish. We are proud of our power of empathy, but rarely apply it to wildlife. We don’t want to be bothered by wildlife in our homes; wildlife apparently feel the same.

    “Pure Habitat”

    Go to any library, and try to find a book on human-free habitat. Apparently, there aren’t any! There isn’t even a subject heading for it in the Library of Congress subject index. I spent two days in the University of California’s Biology Library (in Berkeley), a very prestigious collection, without success. The closest subject is probably “wilderness”, but wilderness is always considered a place for human recreation. So-called “wildlife sanctuaries” encourage recreation, and often allow hunting, logging, oil drilling, or even mining. The category “animal-human relationships” should contain such a book, but doesn’t. The idea is conceivable, because I just did it, but apparently no one has even considered it important enough to write about, since we “own the entire Earth”.

    I once read Dolores LaChapelle’s Sacred Land Sacred Sex (1988), hoping to learn what sacred land is. I didn’t find an answer in the book, but I took the fact that sacred land is often restricted to the “priesthood” to imply that sacred land is honored by not going there! So we could say that human-free habitat is “sacred” land, except to priests and scientists (a type of “priest”), who are always allowed to go there. (This is another indication that science desacralizes whatever it touches. Ironically, it is science that has proven the need for sacred land!) Probably the simplest term is “pure [wildlife] habitat”, but “wilderness” and “wildlife sanctuary” should be synonymous with it. (“Wildlife” is “all non-human, nondomesticated species”, and thus doesn’t include us.)

    (Note: I am not talking about de facto human-free habitat, that is off-limits simply because it is difficult to get to, such as the inside of a volcano or the bottom of the ocean. Such areas will all be visited in time, as technology becomes available that makes them accessible. The key is the conscious decision of the human community to restrain itself from going there.)

    Why Create Pure Habitat?

    Some wildlife are sensitive to the presence of people. In order to preserve them, we need to create areas off-limits to humans.

    It’s educational. Publicity about areas where people aren’t allowed teaches people about what wildlife need, and how to preserve them.

    Some animals are more dangerous to people or livestock than humans are willing to accept (e.g. tigers or grizzlies). The only way we can preserve such species is to grant them a place to live where there are no people or livestock. Otherwise, whenever they attack someone, we kill them, as recently happened to a tiger that attacked a zoo employee in India.

    The more accessible an area is to people, the less it is respected. “Sacred” land is accorded the highest respect. “Terra incognito” was not even mapped. A map tells people (nonverbally) that it is okay to go there. So do trails. Roads, which are built by bulldozer, “say” that we can do anything we want to the land. Many park trails are now created by bulldozer. Even when bikes aren’t allowed there, it is hard to keep them out, because the use of a bulldozer indicates that the land is not important, and that rough treatment won’t hurt it. Part of being sacred is the feeling of mystery. Mapping, roads, and other aids to human access destroy much of that feeling of mystery. For example, a map trivializes all areas and reduces them to a few lines and colors on paper. Beauty (except for some “scenic highways”) and biodiversity are generally ignored.

    Wildlife generally prefer human-free habitat. Since they are so similar to us (98%, in the case of the chimpanzee, and probably a similar large percentage for every other species), we have very little excuse to treat them differently. If we deserve to be unmolested in our homes, so do they.

    There are too many species on the Earth, and too little time, to study them all and determine their precise habitat requirements. The only safe course is to assume that they all need at least the habitat that they now occupy, and preferably, access to their traditional territory. Or, as Aldo Leopold said, we need to “save all the pieces”.

    Obviously, we need to experience wilderness in order to appreciate it. But equally obviously, we need to practice restraint, if we are to preserve that wilderness. Having areas completely off-limits to humans will remind us of that need to practice restraint. It is a reminder of the importance of humility, like the practice of saying grace before meals.

    It is the right thing to do. Why not ask for what we want?

    Practical Considerations

    Parks, because they already provide some protection, are a good place to start building a network of wildlife sanctuaries. They provide the “seeds” of a “full-function” habitat-and-corridor matrix designed to preserve our biological heritage. But they need to be changed and renamed, because “parks” are, by definition and practice, places for pleasuring humans. Many parks should be allowed to revert to wilderness, and wilderness should be a place that we enter rarely, reverently, and on its own terms.

    It is obviously nearly always impractical to maintain an area free of people by force. Probably the best that we can do is to remove all human artifacts, including nearby trails and roads. (This should be done soon, because it will become enormously more expensive, as soon as we run out of oil!) Then a few people may be able to enter the area, but at least it will be at their own risk (no helicopter rescues!). If we aren’t going to go there, then we don’t need to retain the area on maps; they can be “de-mapped” and replaced with a blank spot and the words “terra incognito”.

    Roads and other rights-of-way are a particular problem. Due to the fragmenting effect of any such corridor, where it cannot avoid crossing a habitat area, it should, if possible, tunnel under the wildlife area, so that wildlife can travel freely across it.

    Where Should Wildlife Sanctuaries Be Located?

    Everywhere. In large wilderness areas, there should be large wildlife sanctuaries, but even in cities, and back yards, where there is less viable habitat available, some of it should still be set aside for the exclusive use of wildlife, because (a) it is fair, and (b) it would serve to remind us to always keep wildlife in mind, just as indoor shrines in Japanese homes (and photos on our fireplace mantels) serve as a constant cue to remember gods and deceased relatives. After all, most human habitations are located on land that was also attractive to wildlife (e.g., near a source of drinking water). (Remember, we are 98% identical ….) And cities form significant barriers to wildlife travel.

    Having pure habitat nearby is very educational. I am experimenting with setting aside a 20 x 20 foot area in my back yard as pure habitat. It gives me a good opportunity to learn how to cope with my feelings of curiosity about what is going on there, desire to “improve” it as habitat, the need for a way to maintain its pristinity in perpetuity, etc. Creating travel corridors is a major difficulty. However, recently I have heard that some San Francisco residents are tearing down their backyard fences in order to make it easier for wildlife to travel across the city.


    What will wildlife and wildlands “managers” do for a living? Not all wildlife habitat will be closed to humans. They can manage the remainder. For those that will be closed, they can remove all human artifacts and invasive non-native species, restore the area to its “wild” condition, and educate the public about what they are doing.

    Roads, as we discussed, fragment habitat. How can it be prevented? Probably most major roads should be replaced by rail lines, which are much narrower in relation to their carrying capacity, and present much less of a barrier to wildlife. For example, the time between trains is much greater than the interval between motor vehicles on a road. Besides, we will soon be running out of oil, and won’t be able to justify keeping so many lane miles of roadway open for the dwindling number of cars and trucks.

    Many people may have to move. But compared to wildlife, people can pretty well take care of themselves. Wildlife, if we are to preserve them, must be given priority. They cannot protect themselves from us.

    “People will not appreciate what they can’t see and use”. This is an obvious myth. Many people appreciate and work to protect areas that they may never experience directly. I don’t need to visit every wilderness area in the world, to know that they need to be protected. I don’t need to see every Alameda whipsnake to want to save the entire species. Why cater to, and hence promote, selfishness? Besides, we need to protect many areas (e.g. Antarctica and the bottom of the ocean) long before we are able to bring people there to learn to appreciate them directly. The relationship between the number of visitors, and the degree of protection given the area, is not linear!

    We have an instinct to explore; if an area is closed to us, that is exactly where we want to go! There are many areas of life where we need to practice restraint, and where we all benefit from it — for example, in our relations with our family, friends, and community. Margulis and Sagan (1986) argue convincingly that cooperation (e.g. between eukaryotic cells and their symbiotic mitochondria), just as much as competition, has been responsible for our successful evolution. If we compete with other species, we will surely “win” — and then doom ourselves to extinction, just like a symbiont that destroys its host. We don’t have to indulge all of our “instincts”; in fact, we are better off if we don’t!

    We still need access to wilderness in order to learn to appreciate it, but since we aren’t closing all wilderness to people, that need can still be satisfied. In fact, all children should be taken to see wilderness soon after they are born, because it is the only place they can see how things are supposed to be in this world! If they grow up around nothing but concrete, then concrete may become their ideal!

    How Pure Habitat Benefits Us

    It preserves species that are an essential part of our own ecosystems, and on whom we are dependent for essential (e.g. foods) or desired (e.g. a variety of foods) products and services. It provides a source of individuals to repopulate or revitalize depleted local populations (assuming that connecting wildlife corridors are maintained).

    Knowing that wildlife are safe and healthy gives us a feeling of safety and security (like the canary in the mine), as well as the satisfaction we get from cherishing others (satisfying our “maternal/paternal” instincts?). We must carry a heavy load of guilt when we learn that our lifestyle is causing the suffering, death, or even extinction of our fellow Earthlings (e.g. from clearcutting tropical forests)!

    Wildlife, even if we don’t utilize it directly, can teach us by giving us an independent view of reality and examples of different values (assuming that we listen).

    For the sake of the environment, for our own health and happiness, and for our children, we need to move toward a more sustainable lifestyle. The primary obstacle is our reliance on technology. Coincidentally, the primary threat to wildlife is also technology — e.g. tools that make wildlife habitat more accessible, such as maps, GPS sensors, satellites, bulldozers, 4-wheel-drive vehicles, mountain bikes, rafts, climbing equipment, night-vision goggles, etc. Banning the use of such technologies in order to protect wildlife can at the same time help us move toward a more sustainable future.

    Perhaps the greatest benefit of all, is distracting us from our selfish, petty concerns, and giving us something more meaningful to work on. Remember “We Are the World”? People from all over the world united to come to the aid of a third party: the world’s starving children. While working together, they were able to forget their own needs, and focus wholly on rescuing children who were in trouble. Well, wildlife are in even more trouble! We all (according to E.O. Wilson) instinctively love nature. Why not focus on this common value, work together to rescue the large proportion of the world’s wildlife that are in serious danger (according to the IUCN, one fourth of the world’s animals are threatened with extinction), and put aside our relatively petty squabbles — e.g. those causing wars all over the world?

    Human groups often fight over things so subtle that outsiders have trouble understanding what all the fuss is about. For example, Canadians have long been bickering over which language to speak, while their forests are being clearcut and their water contaminated with mercury! Language and culture are important, but not in comparison to what wildlife have to endure, including extinction!


    The existence of life on the Earth is probably inevitable, given the laws of chemistry and physics and the range of conditions and elements available here. However, at the same time, the life of any given individual is exceedingly fragile. A hair’s breadth separates the living state from the dead. In fact, there is apparently no difference between living and inanimate matter.

    The proof is a seed. Take, for example, one of the seeds that germinated after being in an Egyptian pyramid for 3000 years. What was that seed doing for 3000 years? Obviously, nothing! If it did anything, it would consume energy, and use up its store of nutrients. Therefore, it was “alive” (viable), but undetectably so. (Similarly, there are frogs that yearly survive being frozen solid! Viruses and prions are two other examples of dead matter that engages in processes usually associated only with being alive.) In other words, life is simply a process, like the flowing of water, that can stop and start. (Or perhaps we should say that we are all dead, but sometimes undergo processes that are usually associated with, and called, “being alive”.) And it also follows that we are essentially indistinguishable from inanimate matter.

    As I discussed earlier, we are also essentially indistinguishable from other organisms. Every lever by which we have attempted to separate ourselves from other species has, in the end, failed. So how should we treat them? We have no rational basis for treating them any different from ourselves. We need a place to live that is satisfactory to us, and wildlife need, and deserve, the same.

    When I enjoy nature, I feel that I incur a debt. What better way to repay that debt, than to grant wildlife a human-free habitat — to which they were adapted and accustomed for 4 billion years?! Are we big (generous) enough to give other species what they want and need, and share the Earth with them? Do we really have a choice?!


    Boyle, Stephen A. and Fred B. Samson, Nonconsumptive Outdoor Recreation: An Annotated Bibliography of Human-Wildlife Interactions. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior Fish and Wildlife Service Special Scientific Report — Wildlife No. 252, 1983.

    Ehrlich, Paul R. and Ehrlich, Anne H., Extinction: The Causes and Consequences of the Disappearances of Species. New York: Random House, 1981.

    Foreman, Dave, Confessions of an Eco-Warrior. New York: Harmony Books, 1991.

    Grumbine, R. Edward, Ghost Bears. Washington, DC: Island Press, 1992.

    Hammitt, William E. and David N. Cole, Wildland Recreation — Ecology and Management. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1987.

    Harrod, Howard L., The Animals Came Dancing. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2000.

    Knight, Richard L. and Kevin J. Gutzwiller, eds. Wildlife and Recreationists. Covelo, California: Island Press, c.1995.

    LaChapelle, Dolores, Sacred Land Sacred Sex — Rapture of the Deep. Durango, Colorado: Kivaki Press, c.1988.

    Liddle, Michael, Recreation Ecology. Chapman & Hall: London, c.1997.

    Life on the Edge. A Guide to California’s Endangered Natural Resources: Wildlife. Santa Cruz, California: BioSystem Books, 1994.

    Margulis, Lynn and Dorion Sagan, Microcosmos — Four Billion Years of Microbial Evolution. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, c. 1986.

    Myers, Norman, ed., Gaia: An Atlas of Planet Management, Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1984.

    Noss, Reed F., “The Ecological Effects of Roads”, in “Killing Roads”, Earth First!

    Noss, Reed F. and Allen Y. Cooperrider, Saving Nature’s Legacy: Protecting and Restoring Biodiversity. Island Press, Covelo, California, 1994.

    Powell, Jerry A. and Charles L. Hogue, California Insects. Berkeley: University of California Press, c. 1979.

    Pryde, Philip R., Conservation in the Soviet Union. London: Cambridge University Press, 1972.

    Stone, Christopher D., Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects. Los Altos, California: William Kaufmann, Inc., 1973.

    Vandeman, Michael J., http://www.imaja.com/change/environment/mvarticles and http://home.pacbell.net/mjvande, especially “Wildlife and the Ecocity” and “‘Harmless’ Recreation Kills Wildlife!”

    Ward, Peter Douglas, The End of Evolution: On Mass Extinctions and the Preservation of Biodiversity. New York: Bantam Books, 1994.

    Weiner, Douglas R., A Little Corner of Freedom. Russian Nature Protection from Stalin to Gorbachev. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

    “The Wildlands Project”, Wild Earth. Richmond, Vermont: The Cenozoic Society, 1994.

    Wilkins, Bruce J. and Steven R. Peterson, “Nongame Wildlife”, in Wildlife Conservation: Principles and Practices, Richard D. Teague and Eugene Decker, eds. Washington, D. C.: The Wildlife Society, c. 1979.

    Wilson, Edward O., The Diversity of Life. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1992.

  6. To Mike Vandeman: Thank you for your passionate and thoughtful comments. I am in complete and utter agreement with all of them.
    It seems so small a place to start, but a friend of mine recently dug up her front lawn and put native plants and rocks in its place.
    And for the few couple years, I have left about half of my community garden plot deliberately unplanted with crops, and instead now think of it as a tiny tiny sanctuary— feeding and watering and resting place for birds, insects, lizards, frogs, skunks, squirrels, possums, raccoons, feral cats, et al ad infinitum…

  7. Maia, you are right on! This is an idea whose time has come, as they say. I kept a 20×20 foot area of my back yard (mostly blackberry brambles) off-limits to all humans for 15 years. Others have done similar things. It may seem small, but due to the thoughts communicated, it is actually ENORMOUS! See http://home.pacbell.net/mjvande/whattodo for more ideas on what we can all do to help wildlife and thereby ourselves.

    Thank you, Orion, for providing this forum!

  8. I love this writer. She tells it like it is, and it’s not hopeless. That is right and good in my book.

    Reading this reminded me__

    My mom, somewhat crippled by polio, used to live in Delaware and she much appreciated the birds who came to her window. When she died, i had to sell her suburban house. The whole community had once been a deciduous forest, principally oak; then farmland for generations, then a suburban housing community. Part of the property was ‘unpeopled’ — it was “rewilded” – native bushes grew there which provided homes for many birds and animals. In keeping with my mothers wishes, i extracted a promise from the new owners that they would leave that area undistrubed. They heartily and easily agree, and upon taking “legal possession” of the house and land, promptly ‘cleared’ the area. Many birds & animals, a skunk family among them, lost their homes, (and some of them, their lives).

    In the first year, the family was beset with unusual accidents. A sliip on ice in the driveway – resulted in a badly cracked skull. Wretched diseases were contracted, car collisions endured. A death ensued.

    Of course these things are unrelated. . .But I think this: I don’t know about ‘mother nature’… But do not mess with my mom.

  9. Now that I have studied wetlands, I appreciate them even more as the chemical processing that goes on there is remarkable in aiding the atmosphere. We need to maintain all of the wetlnads we can. Recreation is not the answer for you cannot recreate nature.What a wonderful story that made me feel I was there.Everyone, but especially those in Brooklyn would benefit from the solitude and energy of the wetland.

  10. “Of what avail are forty freedoms?”

    NOTHING, without responsibility toward the wildlife (all non-human, non-domesticated species) that make our life possible.

  11. Mike, I totally agree that we must act with responsibility towards all non-human life, just as we must act with responsibility for all human life. I also totally agree that wildlife makes our lives possible, both physically and mentally.

    We must re-wild our land, that is not in question, but we must also remember that humans are animals too. We must re-wild ourselves as we re-wild the land. I agree that it is good to set aside land to not plow or weed or spray or dig up or destroy or plant. However, I don’t see what’s wrong with picking some berries or taking some flowers or adding some waste compost or harvesting whatever wild edibles spring up. We can have places in wild ecosystems too.

  12. I think that you overestimate the amount of time necessary to adapt and evolve. There are numerous examples where natural selection can occur in a score of years. That is actually one thing that really surprised me when I started reading more in depth about evolution. If an area becomes polluted with coal dust for instance, there will be a relatively quick shift from more white to more black butterflies in a population – in only a few years. Sure, things like walking on land take a long time to develop, but that isn’t the magnitude of changes we are talking about here.

    I totally agree that we ignore our link with nature all the time, but that it is not what I am talking about. I’m not talking about just justifying recreation. I’m talking about truly returning to the ecosystem when we die, getting our food from the ecosystem, and returning our waste to it. That humans aren’t mentioned in natural histories shows our arrogance and perspective, not our lack of place in the natural world.

    Humans were a keystone species in a number of ecosystems all over the world. Sure, sometimes they over hunted and made mistakes, but so do all animals. When humans recognize their place, they can be adapted to quickly, becuase they act like animals. A new equilibrium would be established, some species may be lost, but the equilibrium would come back relatively quickly in geo-time, maybe hundred years.

  13. Matt, species can adapt quickly ONLY IF THEY ALREADY HAVE THE NECESSARY GENETIC MATERIAL! If a moth has inherited the capability of changing its color, yes, it may adapt quickly. But in general, it probably CAN’T. That’s why I took a million years as the time it takes to become a native, and why I claim that humans are native only to Africa, and LIKE an exotic species even there.

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