novel ecosystems: finding beauty in the unexpected

Some fields are given to extreme points of view, where compromise can feel catastrophic.  It is hard not to notice politics is more and more this way, but I have found hope in recent days through other entrenched disciplines.  When people begin to follow lines of inquiry into the nature of the status quo, they sometimes develop a refreshing ability to notice realities of nuanced compromise in the world around them.  These observations open new ways to frame “problems”, and that surely leads to innovative ideas in how to explore possible solutions. 

In ecological writer Emma Marris’ TED talk, she offers a hot take on how we might collectively work to enjoy, preserve and utilize the planet:  Many ecological professionals do not find beauty in the resiliency of nature or in the creative ways species have begun to thrive in non-native locations.  They only advocate for the unaffected, for pristine, original environments.  Marris challenges her discipline to expand it’s capacity to appreciate and study plants that thrive in non-native environments.

In her 2011 book Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, Marris is relentlessly positive about the possibilities for interaction and active conservation when we learn to love the parts of the natural world we access.  She argues, “we must give up our romantic notions of pristine wilderness and replace them with the concept of a global, half-wild rambunctious garden planet, tended by us.”  How fabulous!  Instead of preaching conservation to an expanding world in an uncompromising, restricting way, Marris observes that if we continue to believe the world is divided into pristine, beautiful spaces and ruined, developed spaces, then we will not develop the capacity to appreciate and advocate for the health and importance of ALL spaces that allow people to engage in nature.  If we only work on the places unspoiled by humans, then we will only work to protect a sliver of the world.

Marris goes on to urge the celebration of “novel ecosystems.”  This term describes the reality of species migration: plants not native to certain areas now thrive in their new realms.  While some ecologists might treat such evolving environments as aberrant, as mistakes which either should be corrected or at least looked down on by purists, Marris suggests we

1)   Observe environments to notice how such ecosystems develop and evolve.

2)   Find wonder and beauty in the very presence of a novel ecosystem.  Elevate it, investigate it and learn from it.  Sure, that ecosystem might not have existed forever, but it is part of our global environment now, so study it!

3)   Actively work to cultivate such novel ecosystems.  Stop shunning beauty because it reflects a new order rather than representing our origins.  Such a sense of discovery leads us to approach every space with wonder, with possibility. The natural plant world, through it’s passion for growth and survival, teaches us that migration and change can lead to beauty, even if the process challenges earlier accepted thought.

Marris’ challenge is helpful if we take her perspective into other arenas.  As a person of faith, who daily tries to imitate Christ in what he cared about, who he challenged, and who he went to bat for, I am learning, like Marris, that I need to begin my imitative efforts with observation.  If I observe the environment around me, I might notice that there is good work being done in unexpected places.  Rather than shunning such efforts as newfangled, or as an aberration from the original design, I want to lift those up and celebrate them.  Novel ecosystems abound!

A few examples:

This week was PRIDE week in Nashville.  Many Christians take scripture to indicate that God’s design for human growth comes through heterosexual, offspring producing unions.  Because of this, some are unable to see the novel ecosystems that exist in many of our cities.  From my observation, I see many LGBTQ communities beautifully demonstrating the ideals of Christ: that we take care of our neighbors, that we love God by loving others, that we challenge systems of power that abuse vulnerable others, that we embody solidarity with those who hurt, that we forgive and believe reconciliation is possible.  Could our understanding of faith provide space to appreciate a novel ecosystem that appears to be thriving even if it changes the original design?  Could we learn from our LGBTQ friends how to care well for each other?

Stop shunning beauty because it reflects a new order rather than representing our origins. 

This weekend I got to be a part of the Southside Blessfest.  In a world full of partisan meanness, angry pitting of government against impoverished communities, territorial non-profits, community suspicion of police forces and churches most committed to their own platforms, I was thoroughly delighted to watch this novel ecosystem thrive.  We came together to support an area known as Edgehill, which primarily consists of government housing.  Here, the details of the community or the event are less important than the communal effort I witnessed.  Rather than government agencies only helping if they ran the show, I witnessed our police precinct actively support the vision of pastors and non-profits.  Rather than the Nashville Housing Authority simply showing up with an anemic presence, I witnessed them actively partner to bring more generous help as the date approached.  Rather than a church helping only if it was their vision with their name attached, I watched churches bring 100s of volunteers to an event spearheaded by others. 

In many ways we are terrible at compromise and collaboration.  We are not great at disrupting our own spheres of influence, and we are even worse at supporting new ideas that challenge our sense of normal or good.  The beauty of Marris’ notion of novel ecosystems is that these new ways of relating to one another are, in fact, everywhere.  Just because it has not happened before does not mean it cannot happen now.  Do not dismiss a new thing just because it is a new thing.  Let’s agree to take Marris’ ideas into the public spheres of faith and social justice.  If we open our eyes and pay attention, novel ecosystems offer us beauty and hope.