Interview with Emma Marris

Matthew Tucker  

05 May 2015


(MT) Early in your talk you proposed an expanded perception of nature, one that is framed by whether a place is managed (or not) and whether a placed has changed  (or not).  As we know, all ecosystems are constantly changing in various ways- chemical exchanges, energy/ water/ nutrient cycles, population dynamics, biodiversity and other ecological dynamics. So how and why did you choose management and change as categories to help us think about expanding our definition of urban nature and wild places?

(EM) I think if you look at some of conservation’s key documents, including the 1964 Wilderness Act and the 1963 Leopold Report, as well as writings from the golden age of conservation around the turn of the 20th century, they often emphasize that the ideal natural place is both unchanged from some imagined primeval state, and not controlled or managed by humans. Few conservationists have, in fact, been strict purists on either score, but for the layman, the language has influenced our ideal of nature.

But over many decades, modern ecology, environmental history, paleo-ecology and other fields have made such an ideal untenable, proving that ecosystems are constantly changing, with or without people. And of course, in 2015, there’s no place that is not at least indirectly influenced by people. Now, you can certainly identify places that are less changed and less managed, and reorient your ideal on those places. That’s the approach taken by some. I think that’s a bit sad in some ways. The idea of capital N nature as an unchanging realm without people maybe never made much sense, but it was sure beautiful. Instead of scaling back from its dizzying heights, I prefer to bury the ideal—and have a huge, loving wake that will celebrate all it accomplished—and move on to a conception of nature that’s all about lots of green, growing things, lots of diversity, lots of complexity, lots of surprise and change.

Some of this new nature will be relatively similar to historic systems, but that continuity will require engaged and scientifically informed management by humans. Some of this new nature won’t be carefully managed, or managed at all. It will be very dynamic and weird, with species from all over and new ecological relationships forming, the so-called “novel ecosystems”.

In your talk you levied a criticism against contemporary urban public parks and the bevy of rules and restrictions that come with their use. In turn, you asserted that “novel ecosystems” on abandoned or un-managed places create an opportunity for us to value and experience new forms of nature. Most of the novel ecosystem sites you described are post-industrial brownfields such as former railroads, abandoned lots, etc. From a regulatory perspective, brownfields are characterized by real or perceived contamination of the soil or groundwater. How do you reconcile this legacy
of real or perceived risks to human health relative to the need to expand our notion of novel ecosystems as territory for adventure and play?

Firstly, I want to emphasize that while parks systems can sometimes get a little overzealous about protecting their areas and become too restrictive, most park rules make sense. In dense urban cores, you simply can’t let the kids pick the petunias you just paid someone to plant or they would all be gone in a morning. It is a bummer for kids, though, because kids don’t like to just look at nature, or walk through it on carefully maintained trails. They prefer to interact with it in an intensely tactile way: touching, building forts, climbing trees, collecting rocks and snail shells and feathers and so on.

It strikes me as a shame that there are so many spontaneous, wild ecologies in cities, full of weedy flowers that no one would mind if kids picked. These are amazing, inspiring places, but there are no kids there—partly because of the current vogue for hyper-protectionism among middle class parents, and partly for the reasons you mention. Some of these places are really nasty.

So the first job is to sort the abandoned spaces that are a plausible threat to the health of children, remembering that romping kids certainly ingest more soil than adults who merely stroll about. A bit of low cost soil testing should be done, and perhaps a census for any highly poisonous plants. Depending on the area, you might want to think about Lyme-bearing ticks, etc.

Once we’ve identified empty lots and brownfields that are okay for playing, we can demarcate these and increase their perceived safety with low-cost, durable landscaping elements: bike racks, formal entrances, signs with exhortations to play. For nervous parents, I like the idea of raised viewing platforms with shade (and charging stations for their phones to encourage them to linger). I also imagine these elements I call “come-out-where-I-can-see-you ziggurats,” polywood stepped pyramids in the middle of the densest shrubs that could be integrated into the play, and also be a rally point all the kids could climb up on and be visually counted when their caretakers want reassurance.

The term novel ecosystems seems so “novel” and in this context it seems to simply suggest “cultural” or “human” altered ecosystems. By that measure- and recognizing how much humans have altered the Earth in the Anthropocene- what areas of the world do not fall under the definition of a “novel ecosystem”?  Can't we just say everything a “novel ecosystem”?

Yeah. Ecology teaches us that all ecosystems are novel if you go far enough back in time. I like to call them the “new wild” because what distinguishes these places for me isn’t their human influence—as you say, that’s ubiquitous—but their lack of contemporary management. They’ve gone wild. I actually co-wrote a short piece on this subject for the recent edited volume on novel ecosystems. 

In it, we say that the concept of “novel ecosystems” may be meaninglessly broad at some temporal scales, but that it could have a useful role in getting people used to dismissing certain landscapes as “trashy” or “degraded” to take a second look and see their value in terms of biodiversity, ecosystem services, habitat for rare species, urban greenspace, and more.

For several decades many in the humanities have asserted that nature is a social construct. Recently Timothy Morton has suggested in his book “Ecology without Nature” that the “very idea of nature…will have to wither away in an ‘ecological’ state of human society. Strange as it may sound, the idea of nature is getting in the way of properly ecological forms of culture, philosophy, politics, and art.”  Do you agree that the idea of nature needs to ‘wither away’, perhaps to achieve a more “greener, wilder, happier and more equal future”? (1)

I don’t know. I think about this a lot. Experimenting with excising the term “nature” from my lexicon has been a failure. I seem to need a word that describes a place that is both outside and has non-human species in it. That’s a very low bar, I know, in terms of area. Most places are nature under that definition. But given how little of our day many people spend in such landscapes, it might be experientially distinct enough to deserve a name. People crave nature the way they crave booze and sex and hot sauce. And if you can crave something, it must be real, right? As I said, I don’t know. I am still working on this.

You are a writer specializing in science and the environment.  In addition to the fine arts, photography and landscape design, writing has played a significant role in creating a popular image of nature. Given your thoughts on novel ecosystems and awareness of human alteration of the planet, what do you see as the future of science and environment writing?

Well, naturally, I think their golden age is yet to come. Some of our finest environmental writing has always been a kind of love poetry, and I think that will continue, but the beloved may be coming down off its pedestal a bit, and that just makes things more interesting. The outside place with the nonhumans (nature) is changing more rapidly than ever, and our responses to it are changing as well.

Writers will be instrumental in clarifying and giving voice to our responses—and one day, I hope, to the responses of non-human nature to us. 

(1) From Emma's website, found here


Ecology teaches us that all ecosystems are novel if you go far enough back in time. I like to call them the “new wild” because what distinguishes these places for me isn’t their human influence—but their lack of contemporary management. They’ve gone wild.
— Emma Marris