My love/hate relationship with Paddy Woodworth’s Our Once and Future Planet

By Lauren Umek*

I’m writing this review from my perspective as a PhD candidate studying restoration ecology and as an occasional-to-regular practitioner of restoration in the Chicago area.

I love this book.

And I hate this book.

This dichotomy is present throughout my reading of a Once and Future Planet as well as my regular thoughts on the topic of restoration. In general, I’m reminded that our interactions with nature themselves are bi-modal. Our species interacts with nature through exploitation but we also work hard to undo the destruction resulting from this exploitation. Our positive interactions with nature may occur while on a stroll through a blooming prairie in summer or colorful, senescing woodland in fall are in contrast to our negative encounters with nature; where we brave sweltering heat, blistering cold, and are annoyed by mosquito bites and poison ivy rashes.

It is with this dichotomous theme that Paddy explores restoration. We are forced to think of nature and culture, of science and practice, of success and failure, of knowns and unknowns, of support and opposition, of short and long term perspectives and most importantly, of the answerable and unanswerable questions.

I love this book, because, at least in the Chicago-centric chapter, from my, albeit biased perspective, science is the hero.  (In fact, there is a paragraph that I selfishly interpret to indicate that my dissertation, looking at ecological outcomes of various durations of restoration at a landscape scale, will change the world.) It is clear throughout all of the chapters, that there are still so many questions to be answered. Thus, objective, well replicated research are essential in effective restoration practice and outcomes. This reminds us that restoration ecology, as a science is still in an adolescent, if not infantile stage, without a significant Wright Brothers-eqsue breakthrough.

I love this book because it reminds me that I’m not alone. By showing a global perspective on a topic that I’ve had such a personal, as well as professional connection with, makes it obvious, that while I know quite a lot about restoration, that I don’t know nearly enough. It also reminds me that that there is a planet full of other people that are thinking about and working on similar, if not identical issues of what, when, where, why and how we should restore.

I hate this book because it makes me uncomfortable. It makes me think about things that I am not traditionally trained to think about as a scientist. I am forced to question my understanding of ecosystems and how I interpret both basic and complex components and interactions in nature.

As a scientist, I collect data in search of the “truth” of the natural world. What I rarely consider, is that there are other “truths” of nature that I can’t measure, can’t quantify and can’t describe. Even if I could, (as I recognize that my colleagues in the social sciences explore exactly these issues) I am forced to consider that what I might find to be ecologically appropriate, might not be culturally, economically or temporally appropriate.

The considerations we face as practitioners and scholars of restoration are not all quantifiable. I cannot graph or calculate a p-value to describe how someone feels about nature let alone reconcile how, when, where, why and if we should restore it. And even more perplexing to me is what if it is that social connection with nature that is what is in need of restoration, not just the ecosystem itself? Surely the restoration of one’s connection with nature cannot be restored with the application of herbicide, seeds or even fire.

The topics covered in this book remind us that restoration is a relatively new practice, at least given this name and restoration ecology is an even newer science. This means that while almost any question we ask, will yield a new and hopefully interesting answer, it also means that there is a lot of uncharted territory. We’re working hard, but we’re not REALLY sure if our work is working, or if our goals are even really appropriate or sustainable. Paddy makes us consider our ecological as well as social, temporal and global context when considering the topic and practice of restoration.

My love and hate relationship with these ideas are also associated with my emotions. I’m both inspired and depressed. I’m inspired to continue to study, implement and refine restoration, knowing that practices based in well replicated science are the key to our future success, but Paddy doesn’t let me get away with this, as he calls it, “glib, Pollyanna optimism” because the root of the need for restoration, is our looming and ever present exploitation of the rest of the natural world.

This is where I become depressed. There is a battle to be waged with ourselves; a need for a balance in this dichotomous world. A need to fix what we break, give back what we take, but also accept that this duty is not for the sole benefit for the rest of nature, but is absolutely essential for the survival of our own species.

*adapted from a panel review at Our Once and Future Planet’s book release at DePaul University October 14, 2013.

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