Whereas conservationists hold an anthropocentric view which protects the environment so that humans can reap the benefits of its woodlands, waterways, rain forests, etc., preservationists hold a bio-centric view that the non-human realm has intrinsic value and should be protected for its own sake. Conservationists promote respectful ‘hands-on’ policies to maximize utility. In contrast preservationists impose ‘hands-off’ strictures to guard the environment, reflecting faith in the inherent ability of ecosystems to optimize their compositions and determine their evolution. Such sentiments established the Wilderness Act, passed by the US Congress in 1964. It officially recognized the wilderness “as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” In 1972, the Preservation movement attained global status when the General Conference of UNESCO established the first World Heritage sites, designating specific tropical rainforests, coral reefs, glaciers, caves, lakes, and tall grass prairies as treasures that were vulnerable and merited protection so they would be bequeathed to future generations. The ranks of the preservationists swell after each disaster demonstrating that human technologies are fallible and can be destructive. That is why, preservationists insist, it is better to leave things alone. Their safeguarding strategies either prohibit access to old growth forests, untamed jungles, native tundra, pristine deserts, etc. They accomplish this by banning mining, hunting, fishing, and logging.  Alternatively, preservationists might impose rules and require permitting to limit human access.

Alan Sonfist explains a childhood experience that serves as the impetus for his adult preservationist art projects. “My life began in the teeming jungles of the South Bronx. On the way to school, I passed smoldering fires and packs of dogs eating garbage. There were no trees anywhere – the few that had existed were long dead. There were only concrete streets and brick buildings …Several blocks away there was an isolated forest where no one played.  It was a deep ravine on the Bronx River near an abandoned ice-house…The smells of the freshness of the earth were in direct contrast with the smells of overcrowding and urban decay. Instead of gang members, there were turtles and snakes.  Instead of wild dogs that could sense my fear and would attack if I entered their territory, there were deer and fox who were curious and gentle and would let me enter their world. This forest became my sanctuary. As I grew older, more people from the neighborhood spent time in the forest.  Little by little, the undergrowth was trampled down, garbage was strewn everywhere, and fires were set.  Later, when someone drowned in the river, the city decided that the forest was a dangerous place, so it cut down the trees and poured concrete over the roots.  … My forest disappeared….”Through my artworks, I recreate the forest of my childhood. I know from my own experience that the forest saved me as a child. It gave a very basic dimension to my life.  I want to share that basic dimension with other people.”2

Unlike Sonfist’s “Time Landscape”, the old growth forest at the New York Botanical Garden was restored in 2011. This surviving remnant of the woodlands that the Lenape Indians hunted was originally treated to a Preservationist’s non-interference policy in the belief held by botanists that the best way to deal with a forest would be to leave it alone. Todd Forrest, vice president of horticulture and living collections at the NYBG explains the policy’s failure, "What they didn't understand and there's no way they could was that these human influences are so insidious and so damaging, that by doing nothing, you're essentially allowing the forest to slowly die."3  Even after the wilderness was partly fenced in and protected by railings in 1926, the forest continued to be damaged by well-behaved visitors who did not stray from the paths, did not pick flowers, and did not litter. As they were admiring the forest’s beauty, they were killing the trees by compacting the soil.

As the artists in this section demonstrate, preservationists protect eco systems and their populations by reinstating a lost species (Ballengee), empowering a threatened population (Dory), cultivating ‘weed’ species (Fournier), protesting abuse (Ji, Krajcberg), developing awareness of jeopardy (Lin, Zurkow), and isolating a vulnerable forest (Sonfist).

READ TO LIFE! Any three chapters in this section.

PROJECT: Create a public service ‘edutisement’ (education + advertisement) that promotes a preservationist’s “let it be” approach to either one form of life that has been neglected or abused because it is not useful to humans (e.g. a cockroach, poison ivy, or a rat), or one non-living component of your landscape that is neglected or abused because it is not useful to humans (e.g. a puddle, a crack in the sidewalk, or an empty lot). Your edutisemen might elevate its stature by displaying its pleasurable appearance, aroma, or sound. Alternatively, you project might come to its defense by destroying fungicide or a chain saw  or some other weapon used against it. Or, you might create a sanctuary for your object. Your goal is to convey the preservationist’s belief that all forms of life and all components of ecosystems are valuable and worth preserving.

RESEARCH / DISCUSSION: Should old growth forests be ‘preserved’ if it means the loggers and their families become impoverished?
Should Native Americans be allowed to ‘preserve’ their waterways if struggling farmers need their water to irrigate crops?
  • Monday, 10 September 2012