Nature vs. Nature

The campaign to select the Seven Natural Wonders of the World is on. Choose sides now.

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When it comes to Sunday morning media, most people concern themselves that day of the week with the hefty Times or one of the number of political discussion shows you can find on any network or cable news channel. Fewer people concern themselves with CBS Sunday Morning. That’s the tame general interest magazine that opens with a trumpet fanfare and the image of a rising sun. For an hour and a half, CBS reporters (those not assigned, say, the White House or the Pentagon) deliver inoffensive features on topics such as railroad-inspired art, the history of the doughnut, and actress Estelle Parsons of Bonnie and Clyde fame. This week, it celebrated its 30th anniversary on the air.

The show ends each week with a short montage of scenes from the natural world. These tend to relate in some way to the current season. The only sound is ambient noise. There is no narrative. Once they’re over, the show’s bow-tied host, Charles Osgood, will appear and calmly reiterate in plain language what viewers have just seen — “The Trumpeter swans in Wyoming,” he’ll say, or “The snowy mountains of southern Colorado” or “The cactus flowers of Arizona’s high Sonoran Desert.”

The tranquility of these segments leaves viewers feeling that they have been appropriately set off into that most serene of days. It also leaves Sunday Morning feeling like the most anachronistic show on television today. To be fair, there are some people wondering who came up with the doughnut and what Estelle Parsons is up to these days. But when it comes to nature, the show has its finger on the pulse of an audience that goes to utube.com and wonders why it doesn’t see any videos.

Melting icicles and blooming wildflowers? Not! Today’s nature-viewing public expects weeks of sharks and high-definition lion attacks and alligators exploding out of python stomachs!

As it is depicted, most drama in nature centers on the conflict of and among individuals — these are usually animals, as the success or failure of plants and fungi are typically unable to illicit the kind of strong emotional response that a meerkat can. But for those tired of such a trope, it’s now possible to advance to a new level, one in which huge swathes of the natural world are pitted against one another.

The venue is the New7Wonders of Nature campaign. Organized by a nonprofit group (N7W) based in Switzerland, the campaign is a multi-year effort to designate one natural “wonder” in each of seven categories: landscapes/ice formations; islands; mountains/volcanoes; caves/rock formations/valleys; forests/national parks/nature reserves; lakes/rivers/waterfalls; and seascapes.

N7W has experience in this sort of thing. In 2007, it announced the selection of seven new “official” wonders of the world to “represent global heritage throughout history.” People from around the planet weighed in via telephone, Web, and text message, casting 100 million votes. At a ceremony in Portugal featuring Jennifer Lopez, Ben Kingsley, and Hillary Swank, N7W announced that Chichen Itza, Petra, Machu Picchu, the Colosseum, Great Wall of China, Taj Mahal, and Christ Redeemer statue beat out the likes of the Acropolis, the Alhambra, and Stonehenge, American Idol-style.

The Wonders of Nature campaign works the same way. Earlier this year, 430 nominees were winnowed to 261 — one from each nation, except for those that cross international borders, like the Danube River and Lake Titicaca. Voting on these candidates is open until early July. Later that month, a panel led by former UNESCO Director-General Federico Mayor will chose 21 candidates from the top 77 vote-getters. Voting on those will continue until 2011, when the seven will be chosen based on popular vote.

The goals of the Wonders of Nature campaign are as lofty and unsurprising as those of the group’s earlier campaign: According to N7W, the process will “significantly raise awareness of the incredible variety and beauty of nature around us. As our slogan says, ‘If we want to save anything, we first need to truly appreciate it!'”

Looking at the live rankings, one wonders if current category leaders like Niagara Falls, Mount Everest, the Great Barrier Reef, and Grand Canyon really need the press. If somebody didn’t already find the Grand Canyon awesome, would a public poll that says it is change his mind?

The real interest lies not in the predictable winners, but in what one could consider the losers. Consider what’s currently bringing up the rear in “caves/rock formations/valleys” — the Kugitang Caves in Turkmenistan. According to N7W: “The Kugitang caves are located on the slope of the Kugitangtua Ridge and are a typical representation of various karst forms. Some 60 caves have been discovered, with a total length of 50 km, featuring galleries, passages, halls and labyrinths. The caves are rich in formations made of plaster, calcite, aragonite in the form of stalactites, stalagmites and stone curtains.” Who knew?

At the bottom of “lakes/rivers/waterfalls” is Ganga Talao in Mauritius. Ganga Talao, says N7W, “is a lake situated in a secluded mountain area in the district of Savanne, in the center of Mauritius. It is a carter lake within an extinct volcano. Ganga Talao lies 1800 feet above sea level and has a small island in its middle” — a placid-sounding environment with Sunday Morning‘s name all over it.

Exploring the bottoms of each list reveals a number of natural places unfamiliar to the average person, in places either remote or far off the tourist path. Issyk Kul Lake in Kyrgyzstan? The Arches of Akakus in Libya? The Malolotja Nature Reserve in Swaziland? One wonders whether it would it would be more effective if N7W — in trying to “raise awareness” of these sites — designated as its seven wonders not the highest but the lowest vote-getters in each category.

One may assume that such thinking is a slippery slope that leaves no choice but to say that all of a nature is, in some way, a wonder. But to be sure, the N7W campaign trades in aesthetic responses to nature; nobody is ranking these sites based on their scientific or ecological significances. Consider the entry for the Turks and Caicos. The Turks Islands Passage, we’re told, is a 30-mile long, 7,000-feet deep trench through which whales travel in the springtime. The image for the entry is one of the open ocean under a cloud-filled sky. It sounds like an important place, but can the voting public appreciate as a “wonder” an underwater trench that its told is there, especially when its going up against the Great Barrier Reef? The real wonder would be if Islands Passage weren’t at the bottom in the “seascape” category.

And what of those things not simply unseeable, but unattractive to the eye? There is a group of academics who study the aesthetic appreciation of unscenic nature; the popular example they bandy about is that of a rotting elk carcass covered in maggots. Appreciating this scene is not to adopt a Pollyannish view of the natural world, one whose underlying presumption is that all of nature is a source of wonder — that sounds terribly boring. Recognizing it is instead an acknowledgment of particular qualities that may not extend to every rotting corpse and/or thing covered in maggots. Defending the elk in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Rhode Island School of Design professor Yuriko Saito argues:

[W]e must stress that the aesthetic value of the elk with maggots is not simply our conceptual understanding of its role in the ecosystem, but the way in which its various sensory qualities illustrate or express their important role. The drama of life, struggle, and the transience of existence must be presented in the visual composition, as well as in the smell and texture of the decaying animal carcass and the movement of maggots.

If there is any danger to the N7W campaign, it isn’t the fact that it’s basically a retread of what we already know — namely that the Galapagos Islands and Niagara Falls and their ilk are wonderful places in the most explicit sense of the word. Nobody would reasonably expect J-Lo to perform at a ceremony celebrating a rotting elk carcass covered in maggots, or for Oscar winners Swank and Kingsley to introduce her at such a ceremony (even though that event would probably be a lot more compelling than one honoring Mount Everest). Instead, the risk is in how such a campaign, regardless of its intentions, solidifies pre-existing thoughts on the natural world and continues the long process of shaping expectations of what counts as “good nature,” or at least of what’s worth looking at.

To be sure, drama and tension and epic scales have long had a place in human appreciation of Nature. What’s new is the realization that maybe subtlety and nuance no longer do. • 5 February 2009