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Toward an Ecological Conversation Steve Talbott The chickadee was oblivious to its surroundings and seemed almost machinelike , 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, redand 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 on hands. But by what right do I encourage tameness in creatures of the wild? 102 Steve Talbott The classic issue here has to do with how we should assess our impacts on 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 on 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 must now 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 proved 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 1996, 122–24). Turner’s critique of the ideal of scientific management is not un- Toward an Ecological Conversation 103 like 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...


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