Emma Marris: How Do We Embrace All Kinds Of Nature? Environmental writer Emma Marris wants us to broaden our definition of nature to one that embraces urban and wild spaces in order learn to protect and care for it.
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How Do We Embrace All Kinds Of Nature?

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How Do We Embrace All Kinds Of Nature?

How Do We Embrace All Kinds Of Nature?

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Can we just clarify this? Is it Anthrop-ocene (ph) or Anthrow-pecene (ph)?

EMMA MARRIS: Anthropocene. I've heard that it's a U.S.-U.K. difference.

RAZ: This is Emma Marris. She's a writer. And she's covered nature and the environment for years.

What do you say?

MARRIS: I guess I say Anthropocene now.

RAZ: You do?


RAZ: I've been saying Anthrowpecene (ph) in my interviews. Am I going to sound like a pompous jerk?

MARRIS: You know what, it's possible that either version makes us sound like pompous jerks (laughter).

RAZ: OK. All right. However you say it, Emma believes the world is full of signs that we're living in the Anthropocene.

MARRIS: No matter where you are, no matter what you're looking at, no matter how many days you've spent hiking away from the road, you're still in a landscape that was shaped by humans because of climate change. Every place on Earth has more carbon dioxide in it than it used to. The sort of influence of humans is everywhere...

RAZ: ...Even in places we think of as untouched. Emma picks up the idea from the TED stage.


MARRIS: Places like Yellowstone or the Mongolian steppe or the Great Barrier Reef or the Serengeti, places that we think of as kind of Edenic representations of nature before we screwed everything up. And in a way, they are less impacted by our day-to-day activities. Many of these places have no roads or few roads. But ultimately, even these edens are deeply influenced by humans.

Now let's just take North America for example, since that's where we're meeting. Crater Lake in southern Oregon, which is my closest National Park, is a beautiful example of a landscape that seems to be coming out of the past, but they're managing it carefully. One of the issues they have now is whitebark pine die-off. Whitebark pine is a beautiful megaflora that grows up at high altitude. And it's got all these problems right now with disease. There's a blister rust that was introduced, bark beetle. So to deal with this, the Park Service has been planting rust-resistant whitebark pine seedlings in the park.

And this kind of thing is really much more common than you would think. National parks are heavily managed. The wildlife is kept to a certain population size and structure, fires are suppressed, fires are started. Non-native species are removed. Native species are reintroduced. It takes a lot of work to make these places look untouched.

Additionally, these sort of Edenic places are often distant from where people live. And they're expensive to get to, they're hard to visit. So this means that they're only available to the elites. And that's a real problem. And in a further irony, these places that we love the most are the places that we love a little too hard sometimes. A lot of us like to go there and because we're managing them to be stable in the face of a changing planet, they often are becoming more fragile over time.

RAZ: And because nature is changing, Emma Marris says we need to start to rethink how we define what nature is.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Unintelligible) Buggy, too.

RAZ: And that starts when we're kids.

MARRIS: I've got two kids, 6 and 4.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Unintelligible) bugs.

RAZ: Do you guys spend a lot of time in nature?


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: How many have you gotten?

MARRIS: There's a lot of bug observation that happens.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Two humongous holes.

MARRIS: The kids love to look for grasshoppers...

Whoa. How many grasshoppers is that?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: I don't know.

MARRIS: ...Dragonflies and roly-polies. And the cool thing about roly-polies is that when you touch them, they roll up...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Hey, hey, where are you?

MARRIS: ...Into a little ball.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: I got baby roly-polies.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: I got a baby ant.

MARRIS: But we don't tend to make very much ground. We don't tend to really rack up the miles.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Got a family (laughter).

RAZ: Just kind of exploring what's around?

MARRIS: Right, right.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Laughter) It's (unintelligible).

RAZ: So those were your actual kids that we were just hearing there. Where do you guys - well, where do you guys do this kind of thing?

MARRIS: Well, some of the places my kids love the most are empty lots and little unmowed strips by the sides of a commercial building, or just alongside the road.

RAZ: Wait, all this is happening in, like, empty lots?

MARRIS: Yeah. They love them.

RAZ: So you raise your kids to think about nature in a totally different way?

MARRIS: Yes, I do. Because we keep making all these rules for what you count as nature. You know, it's got to be pristine or it's got to be wild or it's got to have only native plants and animals in it. And they're not coming up with these these kind of exclusionary categories. They're seeing nature every day as soon as they walk out the door because they're down there looking at the ants and the leaves and the street trees and the bird - you know, the robins and the pigeons. And we stop seeing these small bits of nature as nature, partially just out of familiarity and partly because we have these grand categories in mind. But they don't make those distinctions necessarily.

RAZ: Yeah. I mean, to them it's just like bugs and plants.

MARRIS: Right. And, you know, they come into this world with a very open, huge inclusive definition of nature. And what I worry about is that we then train them to not see a lot of that nature. We then sort of talk them out of enjoying a lot of the nature that's available to them on a daily basis.

But at the rate that the climate is changing and the rate that species are moving around, a lot of Earth is going to be changed. Then in another generation, there won't really necessarily be that many of those places left.

RAZ: Emma Marris is back in just a minute with more ideas about rethinking nature in the age of humans, the Anthropocene.

I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.


RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz.

And on the show today, ideas about the Anthropocene, this new age of unprecedented human influence on the planet.

And we were just hearing from environmental writer Emma Marris, whose idea is that since the natural world is changing, we have to change how we perceive it.

MARRIS: I remember I was in Hawaii once. And I was in a car with a bunch of ecologists. And we were driving down this jungle. And it was beautiful. It was, you know, flowers, cascading down waterfalls, huge leaves dripping with water.

RAZ: Wow.

MARRIS: And there was a sign that said it was a scenic byway. And all of the ecologists and the car just laughed and hooted because none of those plants were from Hawaii. And so in their eyes, it was hideous. They had trained themselves to only see ugliness when it wasn't pristine. You know, that's a real shame (laughter).

RAZ: Yeah.

MARRIS: So what are we going to do with this Anthropocene nature that surrounds us? Are we going to be able to see the beauty in it? Are we going to be able to value it, even though our fingerprints are on it?

RAZ: Here's Emma again from the TED stage.


MARRIS: I think that nature is anywhere where life thrives, anywhere where there are multiple species together, anywhere that's green and blue and thriving and filled with life and growing. And under that definition, things look a little bit different. All of a sudden, we see this monarch caterpillar, you know, munching on this plant. And we realize that there it is, and it's in this empty lot in Chattanooga. I mean, there's, like, probably a dozen minimum plant species growing there supporting all kinds of insect life. This is a kind of a wild nature right under our nose that we don't even notice.

Here's an example. Philadelphia, there's this cool elevated railway that you can see from the ground that's been abandoned. Now, this may sound like the beginning of the High Line story in Manhattan. And it's very similar, except they haven't developed this into a park yet, although they're working on it. So for now, it's still this little sort of secret wilderness in the heart of Philadelphia. And if you know where the hole is in the chain-link fence, you can scramble up to the top and you can find this completely wild meadow just floating above the city of Philadelphia. Every single one of these plants grew from a seed that planted itself there. This is completely autonomous, self-willed nature. And there are over 50 plant species up there. And it's not just plants, this is an ecosystem, a functioning ecosystem. It's creating soil, it's sequestering carbon, there's pollination going on. I mean, this is really an ecosystem.

So scientists have started calling ecosystems like these novel ecosystems because they're often dominated by non-native species, and because they're just super weird. They're just unlike anything we've ever seen before. For so long, we dismissed all these natural ecosystems as trash. We're talking about regrown agricultural fields, timber plantations that are not being managed on a day-to-day basis, second-growth forests, generally the entire East Coast, where after agriculture moved west, the forests sprung up. And of course, pretty much all of Hawaii, where novel ecosystems are the norm, where exotic species totally dominate. You can make your own novel ecosystem, too. It's really simple. You just stop mowing your lawn.


RAZ: All right. So, I mean, even if we all stop mowing lawns - right? - I mean, there's still a lot of actual nature out there being destroyed. So how do we keep some of that?

MARRIS: The thing is, is that as the planet changes, it's going to be more and more expensive and time consuming to keep ecosystems from changing. But I do think it's worth doing in small areas.

So there's a guy named Greg Aplet, he's a really smart guy. And he's come up with this sort of landscape-level solution for how we do conservation, which I think is brilliant. And basically the way you do it is you divide up your landscape into three chunks. In one chunk, you classically restore. You keep that place looking the way it did at whatever sort of time period you have data about the sort of pre-development state. Then the second chunk, you do innovative approaches. And you bring things in that you think might do better under the new climate.

You try stuff out because we're going to need more innovative approaches in a changing world. And then the third chunk, you do nothing. You just watch as nature itself adapts to all of these new challenges and changes. And you take note of what becomes the new resilient, tough ecosystem that emerges.

RAZ: Yeah.

MARRIS: And we're not really sure yet which of these strategies will be most effective in doing things like preventing extinctions. So trying all three, I think, is a great idea.

RAZ: Yeah. I mean, I guess it's kind of like hedging our bets because we don't really know what nature is going to be like for future generations.

MARRIS: Right, right. Because we're not sure what our great grandchildren are really going to value. You know, are they going to mostly be concerned that we kept species from going extinct? Are they going to be really upset if we manage everything and there's nothing that's really wild? What are they going to value? We don't know.

Nature is going to survive in some shape or form, and it's probably going to be more fantastic than we think. So by restoring some things in the way we always have, letting some things go wild and trying experiments in other places, we can ensure that we're going to at least do something right.

RAZ: Emma Marris is the author of "Rambunctious Garden." You can see her entire TED Talk at ted.com.

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