CINEMATIC ECOLOGY

A trench-coated figure perches on a gold statue overlooking the hazy Berlin skyline, ruminating on sights and insights from his day.  Suddenly, he dives towards oblivion, a kaleidoscope of images running through his consciousness as if his life were passing before him.  As if, because Cassiel and several other characters in Wim Wenders’ 1987 movie ‘Wings of Desire’ are angels.[i]  From the beginning of time, they have been observing, listening, and recording the passing of eternity.  “Before humans, we didn’t know laughter” observes Damiel, Cassiel’s best friend and the movie’s protagonist.  His yearning to taste the human realm he’s observed for millennia feeds Damiel’s existential angst.  One day Damiel sees a trapeze artist in rehearsal, follows Marion into her dressing room, and witnesses her private sorrow. Touched by the grace of the moment, Damiel’s desire crystallizes into a decision to give up his immortal status for human mortality.

We hunger for full, long lives; who of us would give up eternity?  But the look of bliss blossoming on Damiel’s face as he sips his first cup of coffee after passing the chasm between angel and human, cradling the paper cup in his hand like a sacrament, suggests that time alone does not richness make.  Being sensorially present, alive in each new moment, creates its own kind of eternity.  Angels may watch the world forever, but they can never touch it.  What is time without relationship?  Which would you choose, Wenders asks us?

Afterward, I emerged from the theater into an otherworldly urban nightscape.  The streetlights pulsed with a hidden light, further concealing the rooftops in reinforced darkness.  I imagined angels there musing over my own existential dilemmas.  It is not merely the themes of this film alone that inform my thinking about temporal ecology, but reflections from movies in general.  Long denied the chance to see a film in a theatre (we did not own a car as I was growing up) cinema for me became suffused with a kind of longing.  I’d scan the local TV channels late at night, ostensibly seeking old movies but really searching for a window outside of my own limited time and place.  For the duration of a film, I could transport myself to distant landscapes and imagine myself into the past or future.  Cinema my have been my original experience of time-transing.

Restoration ecology can be defined as the re-establishment of a set of native species to a particular place from a historical time.  Slavish restoration to a previously extant image of an ecosystem is akin to processing a photograph.  A fixed picture of ecological composition burns to the negative.  We measure success by the accuracy with which the rendering occurs.  Such practice assumes that the contextual background and practical foreground of the photo never changes, so that the original subjects will always be held static.

In returning indigenous species to their historical habitats, an underlying supposition of fixed-picture restoration holds that if an organism thrived there some number of years ago, they should be made to succeed there now.  Staff biologists and project managers compile and assemble their native roster, assiduously excluding non-natives from the team.  Charismatic threatened species are the stars.  We vilify invasive competitors.  We yearn to eradicate non-natives and perpetuate natives.  Theoretically, in a successful restoration project, some equilibrium occurs in which indigenous species naturally rule the roost and biologically expel the invaders.  The composition of the picture is rendered complete.

When reintroducing a species to its habitat, what are we really restoring?  Historical ecologists emphasize evolving ecosystem roles and functions contextualized within historical references rather a fixed picture of native species.[ii]  Detailed, careful and long-term study of reference ecosystems are utilized in conjunction with ongoing restoration efforts.  Cognizant of pervasive human influences in present day ecosystems, we must examine cultural as well as environmental data in analyzing reference ecosystems.  In recognizing human influence, including our detrimental effect on landscapes, we can affirm the positive roles humans might play in restoration efforts.  And in examining and interpreting environmental change at different spatial and temporal scales, we emphasize a place’s past explicitly as a means to ensuring its future.

Biological succession and evolutionary process are more like moving pictures than fixed ones.  Living processes are not static and inviolable; we measure ecological success as much in terms of flexible resilience as in species persistence.  The notion that climatic, geologic, hydrologic and biologic conditions, let alone pertinent speciation, never change becomes especially ludicrous from an expanded lens of time.  What does indigenous mean on time scales of 10,000 years or more?  How long does an invasive need to be present before it’s seen as native?  Move back in time long enough ago wouldn’t even salmon be an invasive?  Complicating matters, many reference ecosystems have disappeared or been severely negatively impacted.  In casting characters to fulfill complicated and ever-changing roles in urban habitat restoration, who is to say whose story of preferable?

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[i] Wings of Desire. Dir. Wim Wenders, DVD, Orion Classics, 1988.

[ii] Dave Egan and Evelyn A. Howell, ed., The Historical Ecology Handbook: A Restorationist's Guide to Reference Ecosystems (Washington D.C.: Island Press, 2001) 1-17.