Touching the Wild

Emma Marris on Staying Connected to What We Conserve

Emma Marris today: obsessed with wolves, peeved that kids can’t play in the National Parks — and a little put off by being called a “new” conservationist?

That last bit will surprise many who know Marris mainly through her 2011 book Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World (Bloomsbury), which is widely seen (and sometimes reviled) as one of the manifestos of the new conservation movement, such as it is.

Traditional conservationists were and remain outraged at what they saw as the book’s skepticism about conservation’s battles against invasive species, and its optimism about novel ecosystems and the need for humans to design the nature of the future — wilderness, farming, urban green spots. (At the Aspen Environmental Forum two years ago, E.O.Wilson asked her on a panel: “Where do you plant the white flag that you’re carrying?”)

Marris’ new project — a series of reported pieces on wolves and human culture crowdfunded through the site Beacon — again returns to the theme of human decisions about, as she puts it, “what we want out of nature.” Which would seem much in keeping with Rambunctious Garden. But Marris insists that she feels “mostly negative” about being lumped in with other new conservationists.

She talked with me about that and other matters: what Europe might have to teach the United States about wolf management, the uses and misuses of the term “Anthropocene” — and why the National Park Service needs to loosen up about children.

Why She Had to Crowdfund Writing about Wolves

Marris: There’s a scramble now to figure out new models for journalism that can produce good work and also be able to financially support the journalists that do it. Online advertising rates are such that the kind of money you can get from writing for an online outlet is just not enough to live on.

Beacon is one of a bunch of different experiments in how to make online journalism work. This one allows readers to directly subscribe to the journalists they’re interested in, and then that journalist is responsible to the readers rather than editors or advertisers or the outlet. So it’s like Netflix, in that you have a monthly subscription, and it’s like Kickstarter, in that you put your money towards an individual project. Once you subscribe to one writer, you also can read all the other featured writers.

I’m working on this book proposal about wolves and I wanted to be able to do some reporting to make the proposal really strong but I didn’t know how to fund that reporting. Publishers are much more cautious now in this economic climate, so it’s harder to just sell a book on a wild idea — they really want to see a lot of reporting done and the story already captured before they say yes.

Culture, Wolves, Wildness & What We Want Out of Nature

I’m really interested in how we coexist with wolves around the world, because I think it tells us a lot about what we want out of nature, what level of wildness we want wolves to possess, and how we’re kind of trying to make that happen in a world that will have 9 billion people in the next few decades.

For example, I’m really interested in European wolves and the different approach to wolf management they have over there. In Europe, wolves live in very humanized spaces. I’ve seen pictures of wolves on the outskirts of towns in Spain and Italy that suggest that they’re actually pretty happy near humans, given the right conditions. In North America, by contrast, you hear people call wolves a “wilderness dependent” species. So I have been comparing management styles between Europe and the United States.

“I’m interested in what happens when a wolf starts hanging out too closely with a dog.” – Emma Marris

It’s not uniform in Europe, of course. Some countries — Romania and Spain — have had such a long history with wolves that there’s a lot more easy coexistence. But then in places like Sweden and France, where wolves have recently returned, everybody is a lot more freaked out, and that freak-out takes shape in different ways from place to place. In some places, it seems very similar to what we see in the American West, with some ranchers feeling that the wolf is an expression of urban liberal aggression against their way of life. In other cases, it’s a totally different narrative.

Also, I’m interested in what happens when a wolf starts hanging out too closely with a dog. This is a big problem in Italy. They have a lot of wolf-dog hybrids, and they’re trying to figure out what to do about it. It creates a really interesting tension: if you prevent wolves and dogs from interbreeding or kill off hybrid pups, you’re controlling the breeding of a wild species and that, by itself, seems to compromise their wildness, their autonomy.

How do you manage a wild animal without compromising its wildness? It’s those kinds of tensions I’m really interested in exploring with this project.

Coyotes vs. Wolves

Because there aren’t coyotes in Europe, are wolves filling that niche in urban areas there? Is there a difference between European wolves and U.S. wolves? Or is it just a difference between the human cultures in which they’re being managed and perceived?

We really see the two species so differently. I think it’s revealing that a single wolf can be killed in a hunt in the United States and all the environmental groups are up in arms while the hunters are celebrating, and it’s a big deal. But last year, the U.S. federal government killed 75,000 coyotes as a matter of course, without anyone noticing. So there’s a huge difference in how we treat those two animals and how we think about them. Do we want to keep them completely separate? What do we lose or gain if wolves become more like coyotes?

At some level, maybe we should be celebrating wolves’ resilience and their flexibility, their ability to hang on and adapt and be happy in a humanized world. On the other hand, maybe we’ll be mourning their changes, if they start acting more like coyotes.

Isle Royale: Should We Genetically Rescue Its Wolves?

I’ve written about this, and I tend to say yes. That’s mostly based on the fact that both Rolf Peterson and John [Vucetich] want it. They’re the PI’s on the project, the biologists who have been working with these wolves for so many years, and so I’m deferring to them at some level.

But I also feel like there are a lot of wolves in the world, and wolves move around all the time, and the idea that these wolves are somehow pure without human influence doesn’t make any sense. Part of the reason their population is low on Isle Royale is because they caught parvovirus from humans’ dogs. Some of them died by falling into old mine pits made by people. It’s not like they’re living in some magical, humanless place.

So I think the argument that we shouldn’t do genetic rescue because it would be interfering with their naturalness just probably doesn’t hold up, and I think the long-term data is just too useful to jeopardize.

Her Obsession with OR-7 & the Tipping Point for Wolves

I live in Klamath Falls, Oregon, and that’s not too distant from the den site of OR-7, this semi-famous wolf that, at one point, walks all the way from the Wallowas in northeastern Oregon all the way to California, and they haven’t had a wolf in California since 1924. Everyone just thought that he would die alone and it was just this funky anomaly that he had gotten that far.

And then this spring, suddenly he has this mate that they’ve seen on camera traps, and now he has pups, so now there’s a pack out there — pretty far west, in the Cascades. We’re now just a couple of dispersal events away from having wolves on the beach of the Pacific Ocean.

I’m kind of obsessed with him and his family. It’s interesting to think about individual wolves and their personalities rather than just as a population of wildlife to be managed. For example, his father, OR-4, is well-known in the Wallowas for being Mister Canny, Cunning, Hard-to-Catch Guy who likes to screw with livestock, whereas OR-7 has never gone after livestock on his own, and kind of hides out in the forests and reserves.

“If we give them half a chance, they’ll just fill in the gaps, and in another 50 years, we might have a totally different wolf landscape in the West.” – Emma Marris

I love the idea that these individual animals actually have personalities and that those personalities can influence the course of wolf reintroduction and the acceptance of wolves. It’s just like human history, you know: individual personalities can have these disproportionate effects.

For me, the OR-7 pack is really the tipping point for wolves in the United States. We’re now looking at a future where wolves will spread out, and they won’t only be in these little tiny locations where we’ve reintroduced them. They’re very fecund. If we give them half a chance, they’ll just fill in the gaps, and in another 50 years, we might have a totally different wolf landscape in the West.

On Letting Kids Touch Nature, Even in National Parks

I wrote a piece about this for Slate this summer, about how we need more unstructured play for kids in nature, especially in National Park Service parks.

The story that I open with in that piece is about this kid who got told off for taking rocks away from a state park — rock they had brought in to use for road gravel. They weren’t even indigenous rocks.

But it’s maddening to me that kids can get so close to nature at these parks, these great places — but the rules we have set up at these places because we venerate nature at them so intensely actually prevent these kids from having any fun.

“Landscapes just don’t do it for children. They need to interact, tactilely, with nature. Otherwise, it’s just not going to work.” –Emma Marris

You have to have a hell of a lot of kids for a hell of a long time to really, really damage most of these places. There are a few very, very delicate ecosystems that I wouldn’t put in that category. And I do I spend a lot of time telling my kids not to pick the flowers, so I’m all for that. But definitely your average forest, rocky beach or something like that — let them mess around. It’s the only way they’ll form any memories that will be meaningful to them.

I remember we were driving through Arches [National Park], and the kids were totally bored, and I kept saying, “Look out the window at these amazing arches,” and they were just unmoved. Landscapes just don’t do it for children.

And then we got out of the car and they started picking up pebbles, and they were fascinated. They need to interact, tactilely, with nature. Otherwise, it’s just not going to work.

On Being Labeled a ‘New Conservationist’

I feel very ambivalent about it, mostly negative. I can see that there are some similarities between myself and some of the others and, as a journalist, I understand it’s very handy to categorize people into baskets in order to discuss trends. So I get it, but I don’t share all of the opinions with all of the other people in this group, so it’s uncomfortable for me. I’m not a joiner by nature. I came to all these ideas independently.

But on the other hand, somebody recently who has been a critic of my work actually said to me: “You should disavow Peter Kareiva.” That seemed straight out of 1960s social politics thought policing — and I’m not a conservative. I’m a raging liberal raised by raging liberal parents who met on the first Earth Day.

I think that there’s a lot of interesting work being done by Peter and [Joseph] Mascaro and all those people. I don’t agree with them on everything, but I do think it’s interesting stuff, and it probably has helped my career on some level to have been associated with this sort of movement, if that’s what you call it.

The thing that’s painful about the debate between “new” and “traditional” conservationists — and maybe it’s a discussion that needs to happen to kind of get us all to critically examine some of the assumptions baked into the field — but what’s really painful about it is that we’re all on the same side. We all essentially love the same things. We want to stop extinction, so we want diversity. We want a green world. We want kids to be able to run and play in the creeks. But we’re sniping at each other.

Is the Term ‘Anthropocene’ Still Useful?

It’s been very useful for getting a conversation going about where we are. What’s less useful is where it’s perceived to be an endorsement of human impacts on the Earth. I’m seeing that a lot. It’s a descriptor, not an evaluator. There’s no value judgment there. Humans have become one of the primary drivers on the Earth. Once you acknowledge that, it becomes the starting point for having conversations about, okay, now how do we move forward?

I was just at the North American Congress for Conservation Biology, and I’m always reminded at these meetings of how many people are out there just doing really hard field work and the grinding policy work of setting up stakeholders to agree on stuff. That’s all unsung and unheralded, but it really is the backbone of this whole enterprise — finding out what the plants and animals are up to and getting them protected.

So we can have all these philosophical conversations, and I sure love them. But the real heroes are the people who are out there getting conservation done.

Bob Lalasz is the director of science communications at The Nature Conservancy and the editor of the new Cool Green Science. A long-time editor and writer, he was previously the Conservancy's associate director of digital marketing. He now blogs here about the Conservancy's scientific research and on-the-ground work as well as larger conservation science and science communications issues. This article was originally published on the Nature Conservancy’s ‘Cool Green Science’ Blog and can be read here.

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