Wilder Times

| 8/13/2013 9:19:42 AM

San Francisco's Nob Hill
How do we remember a forgotten wilderness? Here, Laura Cunningham's representation of San Francisco's Nob Hill centuries ago: a grassy, windswept hill with blooming ceanothus bushes and a shed elk antler. 

It’s often difficult to perceive what’s missing. While our senses fill our minds with information about what’s surrounding us, it takes a more deliberate effort to notice what isn’t. Or wonder what might have been.

Laura Cunningham's Land of No FencesIn the July-August issue of Orion, Derrick Jensen writes of an evening replete with backyard visits from foxes, a black bear, and raccoon (article not available online). He is delighted—until he recalls reading that grizzlies used to frequent the area in such numbers that a person could expect to see one every 15 minutes.

Loss of biodiversity is happening at an observable rate, contends Jensen. Not just with high-profile species: African lion, giant tortoise, flying frogs, eagles. Many of the wild animals we’re used to seeing everyday are declining in number as well: birds, spiders, bats. We won’t stop this phenomenon, Jensen reasons, until we insist on noticing that it’s happening.

A person could find exceptions to his theory. Public pressure to protect bees, endangered species, and wilderness regions does indicate that some losses, at least, are noted. Still, it’s worth considering what we’ve already forgotten.

Artist and naturalist Laura Cunningham offers an example of such investigation. Her work, featured in Earth Island Journal (Winter 2013), provides a glimpse into the past with thoroughly-researched paintings of Californian landscapes as they once were. In her book, A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California, Cunningham pairs her paintings with present-day photos of the same landscape, contrasting present with past in a way that makes forgetting impossible.

Elizabeth Tjader
8/19/2013 3:54:39 PM

There are a few of us who are "conscious" of the decline in native species. It is beyond heartbreaking. I've often contended that thanks to technology, where the ubiquitous "I" everything dominates the landscape and pulls our senses away from the marvels of nature, it wouldn't matter if an Ivory Billed Woodpecker or a Dodo Bird suddenly appeared; most people would miss it. They're glued to their crystal blue screens playing inane card games or making "friends" on Facebook. Take a look around sometime and notice today's humans; those pushing their kids in strollers, or walking their dogs along a trail, or even those sitting in outdoor cafes, they aren't looking around at the wonders of nature; rather, they're all staring "down" at a screen or have one stuck to their ears. Is it any wonder all the marvelous flora and fauna of which this planet is comprised fades before us? No, it is no surprise. We're living through an unprecedented loss of biodiversity caused solely by one species alone: H. sapiens. And for the few of us within that species who marvel at the wonders of nature, it is a time of deep mourning and grief. I've often imagined how extraordinary and lush this planet must have been before H. sapiens surpassed 7 billion in numbers; but then again, all that imagining does is fuel the deep anger and sadness inside. What a terrible tragedy; it did NOT have to be this way.

8/16/2013 9:12:35 PM

Maybe they will know if we do what Jensen suggests. I have wanted to do something like this for a long time. To do it with others makes it more do-able. I am an artist with anthropological interests.

JWT Meakin
8/16/2013 6:52:48 PM

I am fully aware of what's been lost, and what is being lost day on day. However I am helpless to change the process. It was well known thirty years ago that lions were on their way to extinction in the wild. What exactly was done about it? It was well known 70 years ago that water was going to be (was already) a problem in the Western U.S. The U.S. is a very rich country and could have done something about it. The only things that were done were to exacerbate the problem. Societies as set up now are only going to continue business as usual. So the lions will go, the fish will go, wild land will be condemned as unproductive, we will end up with mega-cities and the occasional well-groomed park. And the next generation will not know what they have lost.

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