Restoration Ecology and the Shame Thing: William Jordan III’s “The Sunflower Forest,” 10 Years On

By Liam HeneghanApril 12, 2013

    The Sunflower Forest by William R. Jordan. University of California Press. 264 pages.

    WHEN I FIRST BROUGHT a group of my undergraduate students to meet William Jordan III at Cafe Mozart in Evanston, Illinois, he told them that each year we should ritualistically destroy a small plot of virgin prairie, of which there is virtually none left in this state, in order to dramatize its importance to us. I assured them that he did not mean this sacrifice literally; he assured them that he did.

    At that time, around the turn of the new millennium, William (Bill) Jordan was working on The Sunflower Forest: Ecological Restoration and the New Communion with Nature, which came out in 2003 (reissued in paperback 2012). More than any other writer I know, Bill rehearses his arguments in countless conversations and prepared talks before commuting them to the written word. I can trace remarks he made at a Christmas gathering years ago through several iterations until they became the fully formed ideas that made up his most recent book Making Nature Whole: A History of Ecological Restoration, written with George M. Lubick (2011). So, when Bill assured us he was serious about the ritualistic sacrifice of prairie a decade ago, it anticipated a theme that would emerge sometime later in The Sunflower Forest.

    Several ecological restorationists with whom I have spoken over the years confess bewilderment with The Sunflower Forest; they read it hoping to get insights into the “how” of restoration, whereas the book focuses primarily on its performance, ritual and the creation of meaning. However, The Sunflower Forest and its companion Making Nature Whole were not written to appeal to the most immediate pragmatic needs of restoration. They were written to address questions about our troubling relationship with nature. In providing a new paradigm for relating to nature, Bill claimed to offer a “friendly critique” of contemporary environmental thought: of “wilderness” and of Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic, for example. The reception to this friendly criticism has been frosty.


    It is a matter of pride among some of my humanist friends to point out that ecological restoration is vacuous for at least two related reasons. Firstly, nature is ever changing, and therefore there is no turning back the ecological clock. Secondly, because nature is in flux, determining a particular moment or time period to which to return an ecological system is necessarily arbitrary. In the United States, it has been common to discuss returning a system to “pre-settlement” times, though, as critics note, this is to underestimate the role of indigenous peoples in shaping the landscapes in which they lived. Should we not, in the interest of purity, return systems to early post-Pleistocene times in order to eliminate all human influence? Such cautioning was perhaps helpful a few decades ago when ecological restoration was in its infancy and some of its practitioners exercised a certain laxity in describing what they were up to.

    Since Jordan is primarily concerned with the subjective experience of restoration as a relationship with nature, examining his definition of ecological restoration is a promising place to start a discussion of his work. Besides, it was Jordan who coined the term “ecological restoration.” In doing so, he named a practice that remarkably was unnamed before. Jordan had been working since 1977 at the University of Wisconsin’s Arboretum in Madison, where, 40 years earlier under the influence of famed conservationist Aldo Leopold, attempts were made to recreate ecological communities on several hundred acres of land near Madison. At the time, Jordan was in charge of public outreach at the Arboretum and it occurred to him that these projects, by then relatively neglected and regarded as irrelevant to conservation efforts, were an interesting way of telling the Arboretum’s story. He would later describe the Arboretum’s early work in habitat recreation as the “Kitty Hawk” of restoration. Initially, Jordan and his arboretum colleague Keith Wendt wanted to call such efforts “synthetic ecology,” but since this brought to mind chemistry rather than ecology, that term was later substituted with “restoration ecology.” The term “restoration,” in general, could then be applied retrospectively to the range of projects being undertaken globally that sought to return ecological systems to a former state.

    Jordan is not insisting on the historical aspect of restoration because he is a purist; rather, he argues that it is this negotiation with the past condition of a site, and our role in altering it to its current state, that gives restoration its distinctive value. We restore because we are culpable, and not because we necessarily need more from a system. Despite this, Jordan’s definitions (there are more than one) are not, at first glance, especially promising. “Ecological restoration,” he wrote, “is the attempt, sometimes breathtakingly successful, sometimes less so, to make nature whole.” The way to accomplish this is to do whatever is possible “to heal the scars and erase the signs of disturbance.” Restorationists may “rehabilitate soil, recontouring it, adding nutrients to promote growth of native plants, or in some cases finding ways of removing nutrients to discourage the growth of fast-growing, weedy species.” In other words, restoration activities may involve more than just a direct manipulation of species; restorationists may also alter ecosystems’ processes to achieve their results, recognizing in this that ecological systems are dynamic. A more accurate definition of restoration will, therefore, recognize the practice as being more than a simple return to an original condition. Restoration must include “everything we do to a landscape or an ecosystem in an ongoing attempt to compensate for novel or ‘outside’ influences on it in such a way that it can continue to behave or can resume behaving as if these were not present.”

    Restoration therefore links an ecosystem’s past to a possible future by eliding the present and using any means available to the restorationist. It represents a deliberate erasure of the human component from the landscape. Jordan’s insistence on the restoration of “all” means that rattlesnakes, mosquitoes, and other creatures inimical to human welfare should be reintroduced to a restored system. Projects that don’t meet Jordan’s definition would include those that merely renew “natural capital” — that is, when such projects do not restore elements less inclined to be helpful to the human enterprise.


    Jordan developed the idea of “ecocentric restoration” — his term for restoration directed at making nature whole — in tandem with his friendly critique of other categories of environmental thought. Those categories of thought, roughly speaking, are ones that regard our relationship with the natural landscapes as purely colonial, or alternatively in the wilderness tradition, as an encounter with the sacred. Finally, there are those environmental traditions that regard humans as simply one ecological entity among others. The first of the traditions gets expressed in resource exploitation, the second in wilderness preservation, the third in a kind of distress that we still have not fully connected with the natural community of which we are but one member among many.

    For some restorationists, if we could merely see ourselves as plain members and citizens of this natural community, as Aldo Leopold would have us do, then our problems would be solved. However, in Jordan’s view, there is a limitation to this line of thinking. Community, at least in the manner used by environmentalists, is a notion that conjures up good feelings without typically confronting us with difficulties that accompany real community. Those of us who have sat down at the family dinner table — hopefully, all of us — will recognize that, with every slice of apple pie possibly comes a surly uncle’s remarks on how poorly it has been prepared. Missing from the community concept is an account of the negative elements of human experiences of community: envy, selfishness, fear, hatred, shame and so on, the neglect of which, Jordan claims, leads to “a sentimental, moralizing philosophy that […] insists on the naturalness of humans […] but that neglects or downplays the radical difficulty of achieving such a sense of self, and also downplays the role of culture and cultural institutions in carrying out this work.” As Jordan soberly comments, the “entirely positive conception of community has very little basis in actual experience.”

    Not only does environmentalism generally fail to deal effectively with the unseemly in humans, it fails also to take productive account of the monstrous in nature. After all, the engine of evolutionary change in the Darwinian-Wallacean account is not afternoon tea; it is the often violent struggle for existence that stirs the evolutionary pot. As a consequence, Jordan claims “environmentalism has offered a story that is thin and sentimental and that fails to deal with our profoundest doubts about the world and our place in it.”

    Since none of our environmentalisms has, he argues, dealt productively with “the scandal of creation,” he advocates pursuing a new way forward. Central to his thesis is the problem of shame.


    As the circle of enthusiasts for Jordan’s work has grown over the past decade (and I count myself among them), the question of what to do with “the shame thing” has grown. Considering, once again, the problem of consumption concretizes the situation somewhat. Food sharing, breaking bread and so on, are the classic occasions for the creation and nurturing of community. Yet, in order to subsist, humans must kill and dine. Even the most scrupulous of vegetarians must be embroiled in the violence of agricultural production. Every nut and berry ingested is an infant flower unblossomed. Though nature may ultimately win the battle and have us moldering in the grave, every time we sup we have at least won that skirmish. At the very least, the contemplation of consumption makes the notion of community somewhat more challenging. To use Jordan’s terms for these complications, consumption is an occasion for shame. Shame, of course, is an old fashioned thing and most of us, I suppose, would elect to be rid of it. Though it is precisely because we have become shameless in our approach toward nature that, Jordan claims, contemporary environmentalism is so attenuated. He argues that none of our various environmentalisms provide the wherewithal to deal with these problematic aspects of our experience of nature in psychologically productive ways, and that this limits its value as a way of coming to terms with our array of “environmental problems.” It is not an exaggeration to say that contending with shame is one of the core issues of The Sunflower Forest.

    Making shame central to his work creates, it seems, its own occasion for shame. Sympathizers have ransacked the thesauri looking for more palatable substitutes: limitation, humility, existential awareness, embarrassment, grief and so on. Though Jordan declares himself willing to drop the term, I think, in fact, that he is not likely to substitute it.

    The treatment of shame in The Sunflower Forest builds upon the work of anthropologist James S. Hans, and on literary critic Frederick Turner who draws in turn upon the work on ritual of his parents, anthropologists Victor and Edith Turner. Jordan repurposes their distinctive treatment of shame to think about the value of ecological restoration. However, shame is meant here in a very specific sense. The term generally denotes an emotion deriving from one’s awareness of being dishonored, ridiculous, or having behaved in an inappropriate fashion. Guilt seems to be related to shame, and in common usage indicates responsibility for an action, or having been at fault for a particular failure, crime, or other event. The emotional register for shame seems higher than that of guilt, though the latter may, of course, have considerable charge. Guilt can occasion shame, but one does not typically feel guilty for experiencing shame. Shame seems the more fundamental emotion.

    Jordan sees guilt as responding to a consciousness of what one does, whereas shame is a consciousness of what we are. To give a very prosaic example: when, after a long days’ labor, you become aware of your own displeasing body odor, you experience shame, in Jordan’s sense: we are sweaty primates upon whom the perfumed veneer of civilization has but a temporary hold.

    Jordan rightly argues with Turner and Hans that shame is a “universal and inescapable (though deniable) aspect of human experience.” Given its universality, it should surprise us little that restoration is an encounter with shame, in the face of our killing unwanted vegetation and exerting our control over the land. This is especially shameful when we assure ourselves we are engaging in restoration precisely in order to give life back to degraded systems, and that our intention is to relinquish control over the land. Restorationists cannot simply wave their divine hands, as a god might, and turn back the ecological clock. Restorationists have to address the very real limitations of their skills. But it is precisely by experiencing shame that restoration produces value. As Jordan puts it: “The great value of ecological restoration, I now believe, is that it provides an ideal, even unique context for negotiating […] the development of a relationship between ourselves and the classic landscape.”

    In this way, Jordan has radically transformed the terms of the environmental debate. Other environmental ideologies posit either a fallen nature given to exploitation by a redeemed and therefore innocent humanity, or posit a pristine and inviolate nature immeasurably disturbed by an irretrievably wretched humanity. Since there is a little monstrousness — a certain loss of sentimental innocence — on both sides of the divide between humans and the rest of nature, this acknowledgment can generate a newer solidarity with nature. There is, Jordan says, a “continuity of shame” between humans and the rest of nature.

    The acknowledgment of shame, of our mortification at our human limitations, and of the troubling brutality of nature, is not an end in itself. To merely stare across the gulf between us and the rest of nature is to court horror, not relationship. Relationship and its rewards come from dealing with shame. So, what is the recipe for developing true community with nature through restoration?


    As we concluded, say, the last winter holiday season, several of us were probably relieved that the drama of gifting was over. Rarely is a gift just a simple offering — certainly not when it is wrapped and placed under a dying tree. There is more to gifts, as I think we all appreciate, than first meets the eye. The gift, etymologically, is at the root of community. According to Jordan, the gift is the “munus” in community. One can make too much of such roots, of course; after all, “munus” has a range of meanings, duty and service included. Using Marcel Mauss's essay "The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies," Jordan makes the case that gift exchange, viewed in a serious way, plays a key role in thinking about the laborious task of community formation. Gifts, earnestly inspected, have some peculiar properties. They are often public, characteristically unnegotiated, and though obligatory in a sense, they should not appear to be offered under duress. A gift never leaves the matter settled, but is merely one exchange in an interminable round. Drawing from Turner’s book The Culture of Hope, Jordan concludes that “every exchange of gifts is fraught with uncertainty, which [Turner] expresses in terms of the shame or sense of unworthiness that is inseparable from an exchange of gifts.”

    To offer a gift is in its own small but surprisingly vexatious way to take a risk; it creates an occasion for uncertainty that can’t be easily resolved. Will my gift be big (or modest) enough, appropriate to the occasion, sufficiently thoughtful? Restoration, then, is a risky gift given in acknowledgment of our debts to the natural world. It contains the recognition that the damage we inflict on the natural world is inevitable — it is the lot of humans to consume, metabolize, egest, and excrete. But “restoration as gift” also contains the recognition that it is small recompense for the magnitude of the debt. The bull in the proverbial china shop becomes disconcertingly aware of the fearful havoc he has caused and makes amends by offering afternoon tea served in the sundered cup. We are that bull.

    Ecological restoration, meant in Jordan’s full sense, purportedly brings us into community with the rest of nature in a number of distinctive ways. The practice makes us aware of the repercussions of our ongoing involvement in sullying natural systems. It provides a means of direct engagement with nature since, in contrast to wilderness protection, for instance, it involves beneficent trammeling (the restorationist is armed with a bow-saw rather than binoculars). It is also redemptive insofar as it is “the first phase in the cycle of giving and taking back that is the ecological foundation for any relationship.” To be sure, the gift is inadequate and “unworthy.” If restoration culture enables us to figuratively but productively deal with shame and with transcending shame, then, arguably, we get to so-called higher values, including, Jordan argues, beauty.


    One the thrills of a walk I took in a Chicago-area prairie shortly after my arrival there in 1998 was the discovery of Rattlesnake Master, Eryngium yuccifolium, a rare prairie plant associated with sites of exceptional quality. However, learning that it had been planted by Steven Packard, the site’s restoration steward, markedly lessened my pleasure. A restored ecosystem seems a disappointing thing — a fake, not at all the authentic article. The claim that restoration creates fakes is, in fact, the grounds for one of the most influential critiques of restoration by Australian philosopher Robert Elliot in his book Faking Nature: The Ethics of Environmental Restoration. Jordan, however, points to alternatives to associating value with authenticity or autonomy. For instance, he discusses traditions in which value is associated with relationship, such as the creation myths of “archaic” people (Mircea Eliade’s term) and anthropologist Roy Rappaport’s analysis of ritual performance that brings the universe to order. These enable Jordan to argue that “the restored ecosystem, to the extent that it has been implicated in the frontier of creation through engagement with humans, is not less but actually more natural, more real in this sense than its less self-aware ‘original’ counterpart.” Making this assertion may be strategically important — after all, restoration has been compared with forgery in art — but it doesn’t convince me on a gut level that a restoration site is more “natural” than a wilderness location. To say that they both have value seems good enough to me.

    Even if one is not convinced that finding a planted rarity is heart-leaping, the point about performed or relational being is an important one. This is because it may convince us that doing things to ecosystems rather that setting them aside, as is the case in wilderness protection, produces value. Perhaps this should not be such a novelty considering that the products of human creativity are regarded as the pinnacle of the human enterprise, but environmentalists historically have esteemed most what they leave undone, even, oddly enough, when (as in the creation of a National Park) this forsaking requires monumental effort.

    For the gift-exchange with nature to have value and to work as the basis for relationship, the asymmetry and ambiguity of the exchange must be resolved. Even if we regard an acre of restored prairie as having enhanced value by virtue of the attention, labor and care that went into its management, it is poor recompense for the destruction of hundreds of thousands of prairie acres. Restoration a la Jordan can only work “through the spiritual and psychological technologies of performance, ritual, and the arts.”

    Drawing on varied literatures on ritual, performance, and liturgy, Jordan depicts the gift of restored habitat as a “ritual commutation” where a small offering is substituted for a larger one than might be called for. In the same spirit that Abraham substitutes a ram for his son Isaac, so a restored prairie fragment is offered back to Nature as something more than a gesture, but less than a full discharging of debt. A problem with environmentalism, from the perspective that Jordan develops here, is that it has been too eager to find literal compensations for the damage inflicted on nature. Ecological restoration, by contrast, has, the merit of being achievable and realistic.

    What about outcomes? Although some restorations are very successful, we are still in the early days of this discipline. Jordan is suggesting that the process itself has a very distinctive, revolutionary, perhaps therapeutic value beyond the product. The process can serve as a model for emerging environmentalisms that seem at variance with those that are older and less friendly to the management of nature, and that, Jordan argues, may not be able to provide the same internal as well as external benefits. He once told me that he might have ended up with similar conclusions from any number of starting points that entail what he calls “strong engagement with nature.” I took him to be suggesting that there exist a range of practices — spiritual, artistic, therapeutic and so on — that all recognize the challenge in establishing how best to orient ourselves towards nature, yet which are nonetheless psychologically productive. The fact is that, for all of its claims to radicality, environmentalism is of a piece with the shame-denying aspects of the broader culture it critiques. Restoration ecology, by contrast, provides a new paradigm for thinking about humans and nature.

    Despite Jordan’s insistence to my students more than a decade ago that a prairie sacrifice would be a useful thing, he has not, as far as I know, strenuously advocated for this. Rather, on occasions I have seen him replace this exercise with the burning of a few leaves of prairie grass — a fitting commutation for an immense sacrifice.


    LARB Contributor

    Liam Heneghan is Professor of Environmental Science and Studies at DePaul University, Chicago. His new book, Beasts at Bedtime: Revealing the Environmental Wisdom in Children’s Literature (University of Chicago Press, 2018) is now available  Follow him on Twitter @DublinSoil.


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