December 20, 2023 | By:

Emerging from Ecological Amnesia


Coastal brown bear © Jon Leibowitz

Stalking eyes, a big splash. Her head hovers just above the surface of the water as she swims deeper and farther from shore. Her eyes are locked onto something. She disappears. Fifteen seconds later her massive body emerges from below. Is she treading water or standing on her hind legs? Water is dripping down her brown fur like a thousand waterfalls. A massive fish bright ruby red squirms for its life and hangs from her jaws. The end is near. Crunch! The cracking of bones—a sound I’ll never forget. A deeper hue of red now glistens in the light as the twitching fish’s muscles and flesh are ripped apart and devoured.

I had just witnessed my first snorkeling brown bear hunting; called to the river to fatten up before the winter on a glut of salmon calories. The salmon were migrating from the ocean via Bristol Bay, returning to their birthplace to reproduce and die. As it has been for millions of years. A riotous wonder of life and a thrill to witness and be a small part of.

It was another day in the Alaskan wilderness backcountry, and another dozen brown bears, a hundred (or maybe a thousand?) more salmon, countless species of birds, millions of mosquitos, caribou, fox… An abundance of wildlife and wild places still defines much of Alaska.

I went to Alaska with intention. To witness, firsthand, what abundant wildness looks and feels like. To get in the thick of it. Imprint it on my mind. To reek of it. To be humbled. But also, to get a better understanding of what is missing from New England—my home. What once was. What could be again. To remove myself, if just temporarily, from the ecological amnesia that we all suffer from that makes us think of today’s New England forests as “normal.” They are anything but.

bear tracks

Tracks © Jon Leibowitz

As I marveled at the spectacle of wildness in Alaska, the wholeness of it all, I couldn’t help but dream about New England of the past, and of tomorrow. Images of huge runs of salmon, shad, lamprey, herring, sturgeon, and eels most occupied my mind—abundance swimming hundreds of miles inland up rivers such as the Connecticut, the Merrimack, and the Penobscot, feeding people, animals, and the land. So, too, did scenes of wolves and cougars preying on deer, moose, and all those fish. I dreamt of lynx, caribou, pine marten, mole salamanders, and warblers thriving in ancient forests that defined the region, neither relics of the past nor aberrations on the landscape.

These scenes felt like such distant memories compared to the reality I now occupied. But in tree-time, they may as well have been yesterday. There is a yellow birch on a property protected by Northeast Wilderness Trust in Maine who is over 360 years old and has witnessed all of this change in a single lifetime. Trees that old once were common, not vanishingly rare. Luck that it escaped the ax and the chainsaw is that birch’s most extraordinary characteristic.

Since returning home, it has been hard to shake the feeling that something essential has been lost. Our forests, once teeming with complex life, have been wholly reshaped and relatively emptied by the heavy hand of modernity. Ecological amnesia (also called shifting baseline syndrome) has normalized this altered state, making us forget what truly “wild” means and what is possible.

Woodbury Mountain Wilderness Preserve, VT © Jerry Monkman

Woodbury Mountain Wilderness Preserve, VT © Jerry Monkman

According to the Wildlands of New England report, just over three percent of New England is protected in a manner that prohibits logging and ensures forests will grow old, by intent, as wildlands. A substantially larger proportion of the region has been secured from development in the form of managed timberlands and farmland, and that is something certainly worth celebrating and wholeheartedly supporting. It is not, however, the same as wildlands protection.

Often when I am questioned on how reasonable it is to greatly expand the amount of wilderness in New England, I often ask: “Do you believe that only 3.3 percent of the Amazon rainforest should be protected from logging?” The answer is always a resounding “no.”  I follow up with, “What makes the Amazon more worthy of the highest level of protection than the globally important temperate forests in our own backyard?”

My journey to Alaska served as a bracing reminder that nature’s abundance is not a relic of the past here in New England but a potential future. Nobody should have to travel to Alaska to experience a huge wild place or be humbled by massive carnivores or feel tiny in the big wild world.

Alaska’s success in wilderness conservation ought to serve as the reference point for what is possible here in New England. Through rewilding, we have the opportunity to reclaim much of what we’ve lost by welcoming home extirpated species and providing the time and space for far more forests to grow old and complex—while continuing to secure as much of the managed landscape from development as possible, too.

Moriah Wilderness Preserve, NY © Stephen Matter

Moriah Wilderness Preserve, NY © Stephen Matter

One doesn’t need to look too far afield for proof that rewilding works here in the Northeast. Just cross Lake Champlain into the Adirondack Park and see what nearly three million acres of permanently and constitutionally protected wilderness has meant for biodiversity recovery, recreation, jobs, and carbon storage—all of which has been accomplished through passive, hands-off “forever-wild” management. The Adirondack Park serves as a neighboring example and grand experiment of how to balance flourishing human communities and wilderness.

It’s easy to look at Alaska and think, “Well, that is Alaska, this is New England.” But New York? A state with twice as many people as New England and the 10th largest economy on Earth?  Why can’t New England achieve what New York has? It can and it must. Three and a half percent, or 1.3 million acres of wilderness, across all of New England is not good enough. Wildlands, Woodlands, Farmlands & Communities calls for at least ten percent of the region to be protected as wild. That’s another 2.6 million acres of wilderness. That’s a great start.

The forests of New England have shown us their resilience. We stripped this land bare and eliminated many native, wild denizens. Our tree relatives had something else in mind. They came roaring back to create this wonderful forested landscape we live in today. While thankfully forests have recovered, their recovery is incomplete. Today, the story of the Northern Appalachian/Acadian Region is perhaps best defined as an opportunity and a second chance. We now must choose what we do next, what the recovery looks like, and how much of our homeland will be wild and free.

I choose to emerge from the ecological amnesia that afflicts me. I choose very large wildlands and welcoming home wolves and cougars and salmon. I choose closing some roads and tearing down some dams and letting some forests rest, recover, and grow old. I choose a future that is more wild, equitable, and just—for all forms of life.

Binney Hill Wilderness Preserve, NH © Stephen Matter

Binney Hill Wilderness Preserve, NH © Stephen Matter

This essay and the referenced trip were both inspired by Brad Meiklejohn’s “A Letter Home From Alaska” which appears in his book The Wild Trails. “Ecological Amnesia” was originally published in From the Ground Up, Autumn 2023 issue.

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Brad Meiklejohn
6 months ago

Kudos to Jon Leibowitz for his beautiful writing about the perils of ecological amnesia and the direct experience of waking up from it. Relegating wildness to Alaska is like reserving happiness for heaven – you may never get there!

While the origins of American conservation are with New England, the growth of conservation in New England has become stunted. Small thinking perpetuates a poverty mindset.

For my money, the urgent need in New England is for a massive program of dam removals to get the nutrient delivery system functioning again. Rivers are the arteries of the land body, and in New England the arteries are sclerotic with dams.

Thoreau, a New England boy, was right: In Wildness is the Preservation of the World.

Brad Meiklejohn
Eagke River, Alaska

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