Not long ago I participated in a delightful and in some ways unusual nature outing at a place called Poplar Creek, one of the forest preserves that make up an extensive system of green spaces in Chicago and its suburbs.

For three or four hours some fifty of us cut and piled brush, planted seeds, and used bowsaws and hammers to girdle hundreds of adolescent Siberian elms that were invading the site, threatening to make it unfit for prairie plants. By the time we left we had accomplished something the environmentalism of the past generation would have found virtually unimaginable. We had visited a natural landscape. We had intimately affected its ecology—had in a literal sense become members of the community. And we had left the place not worse off but better—that is, more the way it was before European settlement, more “natural”—than we had found it.

Our little outing at Poplar Creek (actually the opening session of the second annual conference of the Society for Ecological Restoration) was an instance of a new kind of activity, commonly called ecological or environmental restoration, that has become increasingly conspicuous in environmental circles during the past few years, and that has been the subject of considerable discussion, and even debate, among environmentalists.

Environmentalism has by and large been skeptical of the notion of ecological restoration as anything more than an emergency or palliative measure. Environmentalists have been concerned that restoration—or the promise of restoration—might be used to undermine arguments for the preservation of existing natural areas. They have questioned the quality of the results, or the feasibility of carrying out high-quality restoration work on an environmentally significant scale. Behind and beneath all this is the fact that environmentalism has generally tended to see nature as essentially separate from human beings, a conception that precludes the possibility of restoration in the strictest sense. From this point of view the idea of an “artificial natural ecosystem” is nonsense.

I share at least some of these concerns. It is clear, for example, that the promise of restoration can be used to circumvent arguments for preservation. And it is often true that restored ecosystems do not closely resemble their natural counterparts, or that it may take a very long time for them to do so. Nonetheless, I am convinced that restoration has a critical role to play in the conservation of natural areas—not merely because it offers a technology for bringing natural ecosystems back, but because it provides something even more important: the key to the essential problem of establishing a healthy relationship between ourselves and the rest of nature.

I believe that restoration offers a paradigm for a new kind of environmentalism, one concerned with relationships—including our relationship with nature in its wildest and most primitive forms—rather than one that sees nature as a collection of objects somewhere “out there.” I believe the shift to the new paradigm will come naturally, not precluding the old environmentalism, but encompassing it. And I believe this shift—or rather growth—is taking place now through the work of restorationists at places like Poplar Creek.

It goes without saying that relationships are subtle and often complex affairs. This is true of ecological relationships generally, and it is certainly true of the relationship between “nature” and a species such as man, who has in certain respects transcended nature—or at least has brought something new into it in the form of a highly elaborated form of cultural evolution. This form of evolution has substituted a rapid, electronic form of evolution-(thinking) for a much slower, chemical-based form of evolution through mutation and natural selection. This has led to a widening gap between human beings and the rest of nature—not just since the scientific revolution or even the invention of agriculture, but from the earliest times of which we have any record; a state of affairs that explains our preoccupation with ways of closing or at least bridging the gap between nature and culture.

It is in this context that we must consider environmentalism and evaluate its success. We tend to think of environmentalism as a modern political and social “movement.” But the broad complex of ideas represented by the word “environmentalism” is best regarded as a modern attempt to deal with the ancient and fundamental issue of the relationship between human beings and nature—an ecological way of posing the question, “What is man?”

Environmentalists have not been unmindful of this. One finds throughout the writings of Thoreau and Aldo Leopold, and more recently E.O. Wilson or Loren Eiseley, an insistence on the importance of developing a healthy, sustainable relationship with nature. Eiseley posed the issue especially well when, in The Invisible Pyramid, he wrote of man’s need to reenter “the sunflower forest” of original nature without leaving behind “what he has learned on the pathway to the moon.”

In the most concrete terms, what Eiseley is calling for is a way not merely of preserving but of actually reinhabiting the wild. How to do so is tricky. Thoreau’s answer was to join a marshland community quite literally, by wading into the marsh and spending a day like a muskrat, up to his eyes in the water. But is this a solution? Quite apart from the impracticality, it is not natural. By spending his days immersed, Thoreau is leaving behind much of his own biological and cultural heritage. Besides, not even muskrats sit all day meditating in the water; instead they go about their business in the marsh, and in the process do much to build and shape the marsh ecosystem.

It is the fact that this is exactly what people involved in efforts to restore natural ecosystems do that gives us the first clue to the value of restoration as a means of establishing a healthy relationship with nature—a way to reenter the sunflower forest. The restorationist, in working over his piece of land, in attempting to rebuild or shape it, manages to establish a relationship with it that is both comprehensive and constructive. As Leopold would put it, his work is “mutually beneficial.”

To see this, it is necessary to look beyond the product of the restoration effort and to consider the process or act of restoration itself and the relationship with nature it implies. Whatever its results, whatever the precise nature or quality of its product, restoration represents a deliberate, intimate participation in the ecology of the community or ecosystem under restoration. It raises a whole series of questions about the system for which the restorationist has to find answers. These include questions about composition and structure; about abiotic influences such as sunlight, water (rainfall, humidity, drainage), soils, climate; the functioning of the system (nutrient cycling, productivity, random or accidental events such as storms, floods, or fires) and the way it may change over time.

Restoration also raises an essentially endless list of questions about the behavior of the component species, relationships between them, and their relationships with the various abiotic factors. The experience of restorationists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum, where I work and which has been the site of pioneering research on ecological restoration for more than half a century, provides many examples. It was early attempts here to restore tall-grass prairie without the use of fire that led to some of the earliest insights into the importance of fire in the ecology of these communities. Efforts to introduce spring-blooming herbs into a maple forest led to the discovery that ants probably play a critical role in the dispersal of many of these species. In the absence of the appropriate species of ants, the plants failed to spread by seed, and formed odd mat-like clones, quite uncharacteristic of natural, ant-endowed forests, where spring ephemerals such as bloodroot and wild ginger are sprinkled about the understory in twos and threes.

In this way, by trying to assemble or reassemble the ecosystem, the restorationist in effect joins the natural community—becomes an Indian setting fire to the prairie, becomes an ant gathering seed and hauling it off into storage—and in this way becomes privy to secrets that might not be revealed even to the most attentive observer.

Thus we find that restoration offers the scientist a way of reentering nature without abandoning any of the knowledge gained on the pathway to the moon; in fact, he will increase that knowledge.

What we see here is restoration as a way of establishing a fruitful intellectual relationship with a particular landscape in what might be called the ecological dimension—the dimension of space, or the landscape itself over relatively short periods of time (a few seasons, perhaps, or a few lifetimes). This is one great value of restoration—simply that it gives us business to transact in the natural world, liberating us from the passive role of observers.

My friend Keith Wendt (formerly the Arboretum’s ranger) and I used to discuss exactly what category of activities restoration fit into. We decided on several. For starters, restoration is obviously a healing art—medicine, if you will, but medicine liberated from its preoccupation with a single species and devoted to the good of the whole; medicine in its most comprehensive and satisfactory form, holistic medicine. Restoration is also a fine art, implying an intensely aesthetic response to nature that the restorationist expresses and explores through the attempt to imitate nature. Thirdly, from a purely technical point of view, restoration is essentially a form of agriculture. It draws from all the branches of agriculture to accomplish the task of gardening in the wild.

Restorationists frequently resist this last identification, feeling that what they do is quite different from traditional forms of gardening and farming—and of course they are right. Whereas agriculture manipulates nature analytically, arbitrarily, and for gain, restoration manipulates it constructively, for its own sake, and on its own terms. But it is still, technically, agriculture—or you could say agriculture in reverse: it seeks to reconstruct the complexity of what traditional forms of agriculture have taken apart and simplified.

We know we can take an ecosystem such as a prairie apart for our own benefit. Farming is in fact the beginning of a real relationship with the prairie. But it is only the beginning. To be complete, the relationship must be reciprocal, and that means that we must become as adept at putting the prairie back together as we are at taking it apart. Once we can do this—the restorationist’s work—something marvelous happens. Agriculture ceases to be mere exploitation and becomes the beginning of a dialogue with the land.

But there is still another way of looking at restoration. One bright fall day I was watching a group of volunteers collecting seed out on Curtis Prairie, the restored tall-grass prairie just outside my office window. There were perhaps six or eight people out there, moving intently from plant to plant, gathering seed while they chatted or called to one another over the high grass. Watching them I suddenly realized that they weren’t farmers at all, but gatherers, reenacting the behavior of bands of Indians who had inhabited this area for centuries prior to European settlement a century and a half ago. That afternoon I realized that restoration is more than participation in the ecology of the landscape. It can also be seen as reenactment—a way of exploring history.

Exploring history can be done on at least two different time scales—or what Paul Shepard has called octaves of time. The first of these is the high-frequency octave of conventional history, the span of human experience and record. The restorationist explores and in a sense experiences this more immediate history simply by attempting to reverse its effects on a given area. If, as happened here in Wisconsin, European settlement led to the suppression of wildfire, with various consequences for the vegetation, the restorationist reintroduces fire. This not only helps the landscape recover its historic condition, but becomes a deliberate act that dramatizes this feature of our relationship with the landscape.

At the same time, an octave lower, restoration provides a means of exploring the deeper levels of human relationships with nature through reenactment of the experience of the hunter-gatherer, the gardener or farmer, and finally the scientist. In this way, the restorationist explores and reexperiences all the phases of cultural evolution and their characteristic ways of interacting with the land.

Restoration turns out to be exactly what environmentalists have been looking for. It is a way of exploring, defining, and ultimately celebrating our relationship with the natural or historic landscape, and of constantly redefining it as the relationship changes.

Let me conclude by summarizing where I think all this leaves us. Restoration—the deliberate attempt to reassemble ecological communities, or to heal natural landscapes affected by human activities—is a novel and in some ways peculiar activity. Environmentalism has generally been wary of it, but its criticism has concentrated on the product (the restored area) rather than on restoration as a process, much less a ritual or symbolic and expressive act. For this reason, environmentalism, even while proclaiming its attempt to define the terms of a healthy relationship between human beings and the wild, has failed to recognize the act of restoration as the key to that relationship.

To some extent this reflects the tendency of modern environmentalism to regard human beings as fundamentally and irredeemably separated from nature and to define nature in negative terms, as everything in the world that is neither human nor influenced by human beings. (For an extreme and unhappy example of this sort of thinking and where it leads, see William McKibben’s recent book, The End of Nature, which is a virtual antithesis of everything I am trying to say here.)

But there is something else going on as well. The problem of man’s relationship with nature can only be solved through ritual. Only through ritual can we reach back to bridge, if not actually to close, the gap between human culture and human experience and the nonhuman experience of nature.

The problem here dates from the beginning of the modern era, when the West not only began to institutionalize science, taking another great step into abstraction and away from close ties with the natural world, but also underwent a religious revolution, one essential feature of which was the systematic devaluing of symbolic and ritual forms of experience. Most of us in the West today live in the world created by those two revolutions in thought—a world that is more widely separated from nature than ever before in a purely technical and intellectual sense, and one that, through its diminished sense of the efficacy of ritual, has deprived itself of the principal means of coping with the psychological and moral consequences of that separation.

Here lies the great value of restoration—where restoration can be the key to conservation and ultimately to our continuing inhabitation of this planet. I say this not because I see restoration as a way of putting ecosystems back together once we have destroyed them, and certainly not because I see restoration as a substitute for or even an alternative to environmental preservation. Restoration does not replace preservation, it surrounds it, providing a relationship between the landscape to be preserved and ourselves. Nor is it, except in extreme cases, merely an emergency measure. It is rather a model for what we must do at all times to acknowledge and to compensate for our inevitable influence on the ecosystems that surround us, that we inhabit and, willy nilly, influence.

In short, I am not talking about restoration merely as a technology, but as a significant, expressive act. I see in the healing act of restoration not a technical solution to environmental problems, but a paradigm for a mutually beneficial relationship with nature—an act of respect that balances the act of assertion and opens up the possibility of a reciprocal and truly ecological relationship with nature.

Most fundamentally, I see restoration as a framework for a system of rituals that will provide the basis for the reintegration of nature and culture. If this seems farfetched, consider how easily restoration adapts to a whole range of activities that are entirely conventional in our society and are pursued by millions as pastimes. These include hunting (and gathering, too, of course), gardening, farming, and the study of natural history and environmental history. People do all of these activities, often in a more or less consciously ritualized manner, as a way of enriching their relationships with the land around them. The act of restoration does nothing but combine all of them, integrating them into a single act aimed at replenishing nature rather than exploiting it. What restoration offers is a highly conventional way of stepping into the ritual dimension, while at the same time converting our consumptive activities into constructive ones.

I can give a good example. Deer hunting is a major industry here in Wisconsin, and studies have shown that many of those who participate in the hunt each fall regard it as a ritual affirming family ties and renewing contact with nature. At the present time, the emphasis is on the harvest of deer, and the Department of Natural Resources manages the herd for yield. As a result the deer population is much larger now than when the area was settled, and this may have been a factor in the virtual elimination of the hemlock that once covered vast areas of forest in the northern part of the state.

Assuming that we care about the aboriginal forest, this is a situation that clearly calls for restoration. This does not mean we need to outlaw the hunter. Given that a critical step in restoring the forest would be to reduce the size of the deer herd, hunting can instead be seen as integrally necessary. Planned in this way, with the regeneration of the hemlock forest—rather than the size of the deer harvest—as the objective, the hunt would become part of a great public ritual of restoration.

Of course, reducing the herd to revive the hemlock would eventually mean a dramatically reduced harvest of deer. We would need, then, to further enhance the ritual aspects of the hunt. A hunter might take one or two deer in a lifetime, renewing and reliving that experience in other, less literal ways.

From the point of view of a society intent on the number of deer shot, and largely deprived of a sense of the efficacy of ritual, this suggestion may seem hopelessly unrealistic. Nevertheless, sportsmen already have a tradition of ritualizing the experience of the hunt when this best serves the interests of conservation. Fishermen in some areas are increasingly practicing catch and release. This conserves the fish by taking at least a step toward ritualizing the experience of the catch. Or take hunting with a bow and arrow rather than a rifle, a practice that evokes the technology of another culture and at the same time dramatically lowers the chances of actually killing a deer.

Both examples show how hunting and fishing can be moved in the direction of restoration with little or no loss—and perhaps even an increase—in the value of the experience.