“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.