On the surface, Jordan Fisher Smith is not your typical environmentalist and nature writer. Sure, he spent 21 years as a park ranger in four different states, and narrated the Academy Award-nominated documentary Under Our Skin, but he has also appeared in publications that are somewhat atypical for “mainstream” environmentalist – such as Aeon and Discover. That’s what makes his new “non-fiction narrative Engineering Eden: The True Story of a Violent Death, a Trial, and the Fight Over Controlling Nature so intriguing.
There has long been a debate about regulation; control of our environment. How much as a society, are we obligated to do in order to protect the natural world around us? With this at the forefront, Fisher Smith combines this question with the story of Harry Walker who, at the age of 25, was mauled to death by a bear at Yellowstone Park in 1972. Now, one might ask, with all the progress the modern environmentalist movement has made in the last decade, why re-hash a nearly 45 year old story?
Well for one, Man vs. Nature has always been one of the major conflicts that shapes our society. In fact, one could argue that it has been the preeminent struggle throughout history. That notwithstanding though, Engineering Eden isn’t really about environmentalism. Rather, it frames the debate around the idea of “connectivity”. That is humans are intertwined with each other. But we also create a loop with animals, nature, and everything else on the planet.
This is not a radical idea; it is not even a particularly new one. But Fisher Smith’s experience as a ranger as well as his ability to explain his arguments AND, as I found out in our interview, his supreme knowledge and intuitiveness when it comes to issues involving Canadians – specifically young ones – referencing Trudeau’s mention of how many of today’s youth have become disaffected by politics; increasingly so during the Harper administration. As a millennial, I both agree and disagree with assessment, but understand his general point.
But there is another aspect at play in Fisher Smith’s work, in fact he lays right out in the title: the idea of Engineering. He explains that when through the transcript of the Walker trial (a civil suit incurred after his death), he was struck by the fact that the two leading nature biologists of that time, testified against each other, vehemently disagreeing on how much responsibility American Wilderness Societies should shoulder. So why did he ultimately decide on that specific of a word? He was concerned about a general trend he saw, people saying “we have already taken control of nature”. He claims, within good reason, that human beings are operating more of a nitrogen cycle than nature. This statement alone should freak people out, but because we have become so attuned to disaster porn, we barely bat an eye. The same is also true of carbon, which is more alarming, but somehow less surprising.
Fisher Smith says that because of this, many are saying that we are in “the age of humans” or the “anthropocene” – the age in which humans started significantly affecting the global ecosystem. Fisher Smith elaborates by saying that many in this field of thought seem to think that we should just admit we are in charge and take control, that man and nature aren’t necessarily autonomous. I’m not sure I entirely agree with that sentiment.
Nevertheless, Fisher Smith hits on a larger point – all these actions that humans have done to cause the start of the 6th great extinction have been mistakes, we did not intend for them to happen. If this is the case, then why do we think we know how to run this giant machine called nature? A bit simplistic I will admit, but once again I understand the skeleton of his general argument. And to be completely fair, he also doesn’t believe that we should just stand back and let nature take its course. Like almost everything in our lives, our control has to be balanced. Ultimately, that is what is at the heart of Engineering Eden.