William Cronon took naive environmentalist ideas about “nature” and “wilderness” to the woodshed in his talk at the Chicago History Museum on November 28.  (More on Cronon here, from this week’s Reader.)

Among other things, he said that when you do restoration work, there’s no obvious answer to the obvious question: What state do you restore a given landscape to? What’s “natural”? The way it was in your childhood? Before European settlement? Before Indian settlement?

A few days after the talk, I came across an article by two European researchers, “What Is Natural? The Need for a Long-Term Perspective in Biodiversity Conservation,” in the November 24 issue of Science (abstract here; full text requires a paid subscription, or a visit to a decent library). K.J. Willis and H.J.B. Birks (love those initials) confirm Cronon’s point that “natural” is a culturally defined goal. Take invasive species, for instance:

“Sometimes it is even unclear whether a species is alien or native. . . . There is also the question of how far back one takes ‘human’ activity in determining whether a species is native or alien.” Humans introduced at least 157 plant species to Britain between 4,000 and 500 years ago, and in 2004 one group of researchers proposed that these should be classified in a category in between native and exotic—dissolving the once razor-sharp distinction between “natural” and “unnatural.” Everything over 4,000 years old is natural, everything under 500 years old is unnatural, and everything in between is half-natural? Why not 400 years? Six hundred?

If that’s not enough to make your head hurt, Cronon went deeper in the Q and A after his talk. Feminism and environmentalism sometimes seem like they’re headed for a train wreck of ideas. Environmentalists, he said, tend to see “nature” (however defined) as having some moral authority. Feminists, on the other hand, tend to see “nature” as lacking moral authority—it’s often a way of pretending that many culturally defined gender roles are biological. Cronon plugged Kate Soper’s 11-year-old book, What Is Nature?: Culture, Politics, and the Non-human (now on my short list unless the commenters talk me out of it—it’s not cheap), adding, “Very little intellectual work has been done on how you critique nature as part of history without destroying its authority.”