28 January 2008

A muddled ecology of landscapes

The back cover of Eco-Geography (Lindisfarne Books, 2001) identifies the author Andreas Suchantke in his own words as a "freelance ecologist" with backgrounds in zoology and botany. I happened upon this book in the used bookstore and thought I'd give it a try. Suchantke has an easy to read style and the book was well-translated from German by Norman Skillen.

Eco-Geography is a collection of loosely connected essays on animal and plant ecology, the place of humans in nature and evolution. The emphasis is on African habitats, but there is also a chapter on New Zealand. Suchantke appears to be a follower of Rudolf Steiner, whose name occasionally shows up in the book. I am not familiar at all with Steiner's ideas, so I can't tell how much influence they may have had on Suchantke's thinking.

Suchantke has some valuable ideas and I have already quoted him in a previous post. A problem about the way he presents his ideas, however, is that he has a tendency to stray off from the main topic into marginally relevant fields. For example, the chapter titled "Africa: Three Landscapes as a Single Organism" starts off with the application of the "organism concept" to the landscapes of Africa. But in the middle of the chapter, this discussion is more or less interrupted by a 5-page digression, first, about the Pygmy anatomy and then about western industrial cultures. I suspect those are the parts where Rudolf Steiner's philosophy enters the discussion. Likewise, chapter 5, "Juvenilization in Evolution and Its Ecological Significance", presents a good, brief explanation of paedomorphosis, the evolutionary process of the retaining of juvenile characteristics in adults, then veers off to a discussion of the replacement of forests with agricultural fields and unfortunately ends with a distorted view of nature conservation:

This newly created landscape, however, may be described as artificial only in a very superficial sense. In reality it is just as much a product of natural process as it is an artifact, for in shaping it humans merely intensify a development that had already been begun by nature. There can be no question, then, of humans acting contrary to nature—certainly not while they are involved in developing a fertile and ecologically diverse agricultural landscape. Quite the reverse—they are acting as nature acts.
I disagree and am sorry that Suchantke, to top off his praise of the African landscapes, couldn't come up with a more coherent message.

Also posted in a slightly different form at Amazon.

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