Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Biology, Books for the News

Paddy Woodworth on Our Once and Future Planet


A little more than a year ago, we published Paddy Woodworth’s Our Once and Future Planet,  an ambitious, even monumental account of the past, present, and future of the ecological restoration movement that was recently named one of the year’s Outstanding Academic Titles by the ALA’s Choice. Then, this past autumn, Paddy came to the States and spent a little over a month talking with people about the book in a variety of settings. Now that he’s back in Ireland and settling in for the holidays, we asked Paddy to offer some thoughts on what it’s like to hit the road promoting not just a book, but an idea.

Publishing a book is a little like casting a stone into a well. We write, as Seamus Heaney put it, “to set the darkness echoing.” And often we wait a long time for the echoes, and must count ourselves lucky if we hear any at all.

Our Once and Future Planet was published by the University of Chicago Press a year ago last October. It charts my journey into the challenging world of ecological restoration projects worldwide; it examines and ultimately finds precious if tenuous hope in restoration ecology’s promise to reverse the globalized degradation of our environment,

The echoes to the book returned slowly enough at first, especially in the US and UK print media, though at home the Irish media, press, radio, TV and online, responded very quickly and positively to the book. Individuals I respected in the restoration field, and readers I had never met, wrote to me praising the book generously. Two of its more controversial chapters engendered pained and sometimes painful personal individual responses from protagonists also, but no real public engagement. Sales were respectable, but the book was hardly flying off the shelves.

And, for a while thereafter, it seemed that that was that – the book was out there, somewhere, but not sending back many more messages.

Then, over the summer, new and louder echoes became audible. Excellent reviews in Bioscience and Science were particularly flattering for a journalist who had learned his ecology on the hoof and on the wing, as it were, while researching Planet.

But I had dreamed of reaching a public far beyond academia. The book’s narrative style, with a focus on the human dramas behind restoration projects, aims at engaging ordinary citizens with the urgent need to restore our landscapes, wherever we live. An opportunity to find this audience came, ironically enough, with an invitation from an academic to teach a seminar based entirely around my text, at DePaul University, Chicago.

Holding the attention of undergraduates is an acid test for any writer. I had some doubts, for sure: did my work really offer strong enough material to engage fifteen bright kids, with lots of other study and leisure options, over five three-hour sessions?

It was very heartening to find that it did: the seminar, co-taught with the invaluable and congenial support of my host, Dr Liam Heneghan, got gratifying reviews from students on Facebook: “by far one of the most stimulating courses I’ve had to date. . . . This is just what I needed,” one student wrote.

It was exciting to find that key restoration questions, like “who decides when and where to restore, and what target to restore to?” and issues like the “novel ecosystem” concept, aroused passionate and well-informed debates. And the quality of the written responses on restoration topics was, Liam and I agreed, exceptionally high.

The students’ first instinct was often to take the position that it must be scientists, or at least  “experts” who decide on restoration targets. But as we excavated that idea, and found that leading restoration ecologists, looking at the same ecological and cultural context, often disagree on the correct managerial response, many of them swung towards giving the final say to “community” consensus.

But again, examining the painful history of the North Branch Restoration Project in Chicago, there was a recognition that the comforting yet fuzzy notion of ‘community’ is deeply problematic; different stake-holding communities may have radically different views as to the appropriate ecological vision for a local landscape they all love in different ways.

“I had clear ideas about how to do restoration when I started the class,” one student said in our final session. “Now I can only see how complex it all is.” I guess that is a fair definition of an educational advance.

It was enlightening, too, to explore these topics at discussions organized through DePaul’s Institute of Nature and Culture, where I was a Visiting Fellow. The participants were  faculty members from fields as diverse as politics, literature, religion, philosophy and economics. To hear the arguments from my book explored, challenged and advanced through debate, at both undergraduate and faculty level, was a writer’s dream come true. This was the darkness echoing, indeed.

It was particularly illuminating for me to hear academics from the humanities endorse my book’s analysis of the polemical series of articles and books advocating the “novel ecosystems” concept. In my view, their authors use dangerously misleading  rhetorical devices to inflate policy arguments in favour of abandoning classic restoration targets. In language heavy with polemic and light on data, they argue for settling for the management of so-called “novel” ecosystems – “chronically degraded” is a much more accurate and appropriate term —  for whatever limited goods and services that they may offer. They thus undermine the case for investing in restoration, just at the moment when restoration science and practice is producing the most fruitful results in this young movement’s short history.

But equally, it was enormously refreshing to find that one of our brightest undergraduate students felt that we had all reached too cosy a consensus against the “novel” ecosystems concept, and set out to defend the contrary position, very cogently, in her final paper. That is, after all, what truly open debate is all about.

A growing sense that ecological restoration is now getting traction as a key conservation strategy, and provoking questions that help us reframe our troubled relationship to the natural work in imaginative and positive ways, was confirmed again and again in these classes, and on visits to other colleges. I was also invited to teach, in October and November, at the universities of Iowa, Wisconsin-Madison, Loyola (Chicago), Missouri,  William & Mary, Dartmouth College and Mount Holyoke.

And I found that restoration ecology now has a heightened profile on the core research and conservation agenda at Missouri Botanical Garden, where I was honoured to be made a research associate during a lecture visit.

Through this whole process, I was repeatedly challenged to reassess my own work. A book is a frozen moment in one’s development, and while I was happy to find that many of its arguments stood up well, I also found that my own position was evolving beyond some of my year-old conclusions. It was Curt Meine, the lucid historian of American conservation thinking, who alerted me to this.

He asked me, after I had given a lecture on the “novel ecosystem” concept at the Nelson Institute in Madison, whether I had not become more sharply critical about the concept than I had been in the final chapter in the book. And I realized that he was quite right: my erstwhile effort to synthesise opposing arguments, made by respected colleagues in good faith, was yielding to a more sharply honed opposition to proposals I saw doing real damage in the world.

What was perhaps most encouraging about this US trip, however were the indications that a much broader American audience now wants to learn about restoration issues. Public lectures organized by Morton Arboretum and by the Kane County Wild Ones in Illinois, and by Mount Kendal Retirement Home in New Hampshire and the Osher Institute at Dartmouth, all drew full houses, with more than 100 people at some events, along with substantial book sales.

The challenge now is to find ways of identifying and reaching the networks, in the Uand elsewhere, where there is hunger for discussion about restoration, and about how this strategy is being adopted in radically different socio-ecological contexts. Suggestions welcome!