Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Transitory Places: Introduction

My paper on the Karori Sanctuary has at last seen the light of day, in The Journal of Environmental Philosophy. Since the journal has a small circulation, the editors have encouraged contributors to share our papers more widely.

Below and in the subsequent three posts I offer the final typescript version of the paper, beginning here with the introduction.

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Sic transit gloria mundi

“Thus passes the glory of the world.”

The phrase stole into my thoughts as I took my last walk through the Karori Sanctuary in Wellington, New Zealand, in early 2010, just before I returned home to Atlanta.  Even at the time, it struck me as an odd thing to be thinking, in that context. Nestled in a steep-sided valley only a few kilometers from the central business district, lush with vegetation and teeming with bird life, the sanctuary is, to all appearances, doing very well. 

The conservation and restoration project underway at Karori could be described as ambitious, though audacious may be a more fitting term.  The stated goal of the sanctuary is to restore the Karori Valley to some approximation of what it would have been 1000 years ago, before the people now referred to as Maori first arrived in New Zealand by canoe from eastern Polynesia (Karori Sanctuary Trust, 2008c). According to the Karori Sanctuary Trust, full restoration will take 500 years.

Only ten years in, the forest is far from having the desired “indigenous character” (Campbell-Hunt, 2002, p. 38), but there are still visible signs of progress. The sanctuary is now home to breeding populations of several endangered bird species including one, the hihi or stitchbird, that is among the most endangered in the world.  Some of the bird species established at Karori have begun to spread out into wider Wellington. A number of kaka – endemic parrots – spend their days over at the Botanic Garden, flying back to the sanctuary at dusk.  The dawn chorus across the city is now augmented by tui, endemic nectar-feeding birds that produce rich music with a split syrinx that allows them to sing two notes at once.

So why the thought that all of this would pass away?

I was about to leave New Zealand, uncertain if and when I would return.  Could it be that I was just feeling sorry for myself, stung not so much by nostalgia as by the foreknowledge of nostalgia? That may have been part of the source of the thought, but not all of it.  The sense of things passing away had occurred to me elsewhere in New Zealand, but most often in contexts where I was encountering the fruits of conservation work, and most poignantly at Karori itself. It seems to me there was something particular to Karori that led me to see it and think of it as, in some sense, transitory.

Perhaps it was the knowledge that, if I were to come back some years later, Karori would not be as it is now and, depending how much time had passed, might be unrecognizable.  That is, after all, the whole point of the restoration: to change the landscape from one state to another, to achieve particular ecological and biogeographic goals. Might I miss the delights of present-day Karori, for all that it exists in a degraded or hybrid state? I do not believe that was the source of the thought, either. The deliberate working through of the conservation project was, for me, more occasion for hope that I might one day return to see how the project is coming along, perhaps even to see the first signs of the return of an endemic New Zealand forest. The pace of the conservation project is, it must be said, occasion for regret that no one alive today will see the finished product of all this effort, but that would seem to draw attention more to the fact that I will pass away than that this place will. 

So far, I have found several possible sources of melancholy, but still I have not fully accounted for my thought that the glory of the Karori Sanctuary would pass away.

Notice, though, that the possible explanations I have considered to this point assume the conservation project now underway at Karori will continue as planned.  And yet, Karori can readily be seen as existing in a state of siege: dynamics at work in the larger landscape of the Wellington region and, indeed, of New Zealand as a whole, are set against restoration. A sturdy fence and an army of volunteers may not be enough to hold back the larger and much older tide of change that would sweep Karori on into an uncertain future even as its managers work to return it to a past state. Perhaps what I thought and felt during my last visit to Karori was tied to a nagging sense that the sanctuary is fragile, that the project it embodies can too easily be disrupted or turned aside, its compelling present and future too easily lost beyond hope of recovery.
 I dwell on this experience because it brought me up against what may be a crucial aspect of environmental ethics that may too often be neglected: that the places in which we pursue projects and seek to realize values may be transitory.  What I aim for in this essay is an amendment, of sorts, to an experiential approach to environmental ethics developed elsewhere, an amendment that incorporates into the experience of place a sense of the passing of time across multiple scales, and so gives a new and troubling complexion to choice and action in particular contexts.

Campbell-Hunt, D. (2002). Developing a Sanctuary: The Karori Experience. Wellington, NZ: Victoria Link Ltd.

Karori Sanctuary Trust. (2008c). Restoration Goals and Planning  Retrieved September 5, 2011, from

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