Irony is a concept I struggle to teach to my students. They sort of get it when I give them the classic example of a firehouse burning down. Or when I present Alanis Morrisette’s song “Ironic” as an example of irony, since as we all know the song lyrics do not describe irony at all.
Now I have a new example I can give them: The Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Preserve. This nature preserve, near Denver, Colorado, is built upon millions of tons of toxic chemicals. During World War II, the US Army developed both incendiary and chemical weapons at the site, and later, Shell Oil moved in and used the facility to develop highly toxic pesticides. Although the government and Shell undertook a massive clean-up operation back in the 1980’s, the site remained too toxic for any kind of intensive human use, like parkland or housing development. So people stayed away.
But wildlife moved in.
Today, bald eagles roost in the tree tops, elk and deer forage in the woodlands, and ponds and streams teem with fish. The refuge is home to one of the most successful short-grass prairie restoration projects in the country.
Sites like the Rocky Mountain Arsenal really call in to question our traditional perceptions of Wilderness. As do many of the innovative projects going on at brownfield sites across the country — converting old canning factories into public parks, for example. Or building playgrounds on top of landfills.
On the other hand, we also have traffic jams in national parks.
How is it that a former Superfund site may be a truer wilderness than Yosemite National Park?
Frederick Law Olmsted urged the preservation of Yosemite so that Americans of every class could reap the benefits of “the deepest beauty of nature.” Interestingly, Olmsted actually predicted the possibility of overcrowding in the park, and recommended steps be taken to manage Yosemite very carefully. So even today, Americans’ experiences of “sublime” and “unspoiled” landscapes like Yosemite are, in fact, highly managed. If we judge “wild” landscapes by their degree of human management, then inner city Detroit is certainly more of a Wilderness than Yosemite National Park.
If you have not read William Cronon’s essay “The Trouble With Wilderness” I urge you to do so. No writer so eloquently expresses the complexity of the nature/culture relationship as Cronon (in my opinion). In it, he argues that the American tendency to idealize “pristine” landscapes — those untouched by human culture — is actually hurting the environmental movement. He believes, as I do, that human beings and their messy activities need to be accepted as an integral part of the natural landscape, that environmental solutions which do not consider human needs are doomed to fail. The essay is full of gems, but one that particularly struck me is this:
“idealizing a distant wilderness too often means not idealizing the environment in which we actually live, the landscape that for better or worse we call home”
This statement has monumental implications for those of us who think about and shape the land — even if it’s the tenth of an acre out the porch door. Landscape architects, designers, home gardeners….we’re the ones who can help direct the next phase of environmentalism.
In our hearts and minds, what do we believe to be true about nature?
Our answers will be revealed in the landscapes we create.
(Information about the Rocky Mountain Arsenal and Olmsted’s role in Yosemite came from Uncommon Ground, William Cronon, ed.)