This post was initially published in the SER MWGL Newsletter in September 2013

In preparation for the upcoming SER 2013 World Conference (, I have been thinking about the role of history in restoration practice. Session organizer Paddy Woodworth asked me to speak on a panel discussing the continuing relevance of the historically-based reference system in guiding restoration practice. At the time of this request I had been reading extensively on the history of the concept of time across the disciplines – in philosophy, physics, ecology, and so on.

Recognizing that the question that this session grapples with concerns what ecologists and land managers do with time, I thought that it would be useful to present a summary from this interdisciplinary examination of time and history.
Quite clearly, restorationists are not the first to grapple with the question of what time is, and how precisely we should incorporate (or not) history into our plans for the future. It is apparent, however, that there is no clear agreement among philosophers, or indeed physicists, about time and whether it should be regarded as “real.” Nor is there a consensus on our degree of indebtedness to history, where that term is understood as that “whole series of past events connected with a particular person, country, institution, or thing.” (Oxford English Dictionary). There a re clearly circumstances when human actions are advantageously guided by history. The positive uses of history are summed up in the frequently paraphrased sentiment of the philosopher George Santayana who wrote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” On the other hand, perhaps we intuit that at times that we can be overwhelmed by the past – sometimes
we are encouraged to let go of the past.This is the perspective of German philologist Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) who in an essay entitled The Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life (1884) argued that an overly punctilious regard for history can be less than useful for life. We restorationists can draw upon philosophical meditations on the use of history as I hope to illustrate in my remarks in Madison in October.
What follows are some preliminary thoughts on the role of the historical perspective in restoration. I argue that the term “restoration”, which is a relatively new one in the lexicon of ecological management, was well chosen if we intended our discipline to one where the past was a consideration in determining the future of a given system.
“ECOLOGICAL restoration,” William Jordan III wrote, “is the attempt, sometimes breathtakingly successful, sometimes less
so, to make nature whole.” It is a game self – consciously played with time. This is not to say, as amateur dabblers in environmental philosophy are inclined to, that restoration is doomed to failure because it attempts, impossibly, to reverse the flow of time. Nor is it fair to claim, despite the rhetorical tendency of some early practitioners to describe it so, that restorationists privilege one historical moment in time—pre-white-settlement in the Midwestern United States, for example—
and attempts to return a dynamic system to this one state and thereafter freeze it in time. Rather, a majority of practitioners view restoration as a set of actions performed to compensate for unwanted recent human impacts and thereby reestablishing the historic rang e of variation ofa system. Depending on the specific history of a region this ecological trajectory may also reflect the influence of indigenous human populations.
The connection between restoration ecology and history is manifested in the etymology of the word restoration. The origins of the prefix “re” refers to the original Latin, meaning ‘back’ or ‘backwards’, though in connection with a large variety of words the use of this prefix can be quite complex. For instance, in words like recede and reduce it means to go ‘back to or
towards the starting point’, or more evocatively, for our purposes, in a word like restitution the prefix implies going ‘back to the original place or position’. It is clear from the lengthy etymological essay on this prefix in the Oxford English Dictionary, that both in Latin and subsequently in English, the “precise sense of re-is not always clear”. That being said, the Oxford English Dictionary states that in English formations “re-is almost exclusively employed in the sense of ‘again’”.
Although the suite of activities that collectively constitute what we call restoration might have been named something else—
Bill Jordan told me once that “synthetic ecology” had been floated as one possibility. Contemporary definitions of our discipline indicate that “restoration”, with all the temporal connotations this term carries, is indeed appropriate. For instance, in the Society for Ecological Restoration Primer, ecological restoration is defined thus: “…the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed.” Note that the word “restoration” is conflated in this definition with “recovery”, another word with a prefixial use of “re”, and is followed, by several ones where “de” is the
prefix. The history of the prefix “de” appears to me, at least, to be less complex than that of “re” but generally it has the function of undoing or reversing the action of its associated verb. It can also mean to take something down (replacing to an original condition). Thus to destroy is to undo the action of “struĕre”, a piling up, a construction. Note that had “synthetic ecology” been the term we inherited it would not have a direct linguistic connection with time.
Restorationists must, of course, assert the reality of time since restoration is ultimately an activity where humans intrude into the temporality of ecological systems. This is true even if restorationists alter a system with a view to a longer-term disengagement from a direct human involvement—erasing the impact and tip-toeing away from the land. A subjective assessment of time is therefore both implicit and consequential for restoration.
The question before us as restorationists is to what degree the past states of a system should guide our management if the future that we face under the conditions of global change has no analogue in the past? The answer to this question not only has practical implications but it has ethical implications and ramifications for the ways in which we can regard ourselves as
stewards of rare species and the habitats that they require.If you are interested in learning more about this topic and the relevance of historically-based reference systems then plan on attending Session 1.06 that will be held in the appropriately name Hall of Ideas from 10:30am to 12:30 pm on Wednesday October 9th at SER 2013.
Liam Heneghan, DePaul University
Environmental Science Program and Institute for Nature and Culture
Email: lhenegha(at)
On twitter @Dublinsoil