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Dan Tritle

Like many of you, I have a rotating series of screen-saver shots that come up on my laptop when I turn it on. I enjoy the little surprise each time it changes the scene. Most of the shots are images of stunning landscapes from around the world: the bleak majesty of Scotland’s northern lochs, the dense rainforests of the Amazon, the vanishing splendor of the South Pacific Islands, and so on.

These photos provide me with a bit of eye-candy before starting my real work, and also a brief challenge to guess the location of each scene before I click on its name. Today’s screen-shot was a striking aerial photo of a hilly, forested landscape. It showed a cone-like hill encircled by a clear winding river – a lovely scene, though not as spectacular as some. Something about it suggested “European,” and when I clicked the identity icon, it showed it was indeed a Continental location, one that included parts of France, Germany, Lichtenstein, and Belgium. But what gave me pause was its geographical name: Ardennes.

For anyone who has ever studied World War I, “Ardennes” is one of those trigger names. It was one of the first and one of the bloodiest battles of the war, resulting in over 150,000 casualties. It wasn’t the human cost that struck me, though. Ardennes had been imprinted on my mind from having seen numerous photos of the battlefield during and just after the war. The black and white photos showed a blasted, moon-like landscape, one that looked permanently desolate and destroyed. In memory I could not reconcile these war images with the lush, verdant, healthy, idyllic scene on my screen. I knew, of course, of nature’s capacity to restore itself. Here on Cape Cod, for instance, a once-barren and treeless landscape has over the past century largely reforested itself.

These images recalled a field trip my high school class took to Blackwater Falls State Park in the mountains of West Virginia, a site now generally regarded as one of the most scenic and “unspoiled” areas in the state. What struck me, though, were several large photo exhibits of the area some fifty years earlier, when this park was part of West Virginia’s intense coal-mining industry. It looked as destroyed as the Ardennes Forest: ridges strip-mined, forests clear-cut, rivers and streams polluted with toxic run-off. Yet in less than half a century this blighted landscape had largely restored itself, if not to a pristine condition, then at least a healed one. Even at a young and largely environmentally ignorant age, I was impressed by nature’s capacity for self-restoration.

I could give several more examples of this, but I don’t want to oversimplify this process. For one thing, it’s not always a one-way progression. For instance, there is no natural landscape that has been more radically changed than the Provincelands, that 3 ½ mile long expanse of dunes that is always threatening to inundate the town. According to all of the historical records, these dune fields were once covered with mature forests, in Governor Bradford’s words, “wooded to the brink of the sea.” After only a few generations of intense wood-cutting and farming, the vegetation holding the sand in place had disappeared and the dunes began to move. Unlike most of the rest of the Cape, the Provincelands have not restored themselves to forest. Moreover, we have come to recognize and value the stark beauty of these majestic dunes, and while measures such as beach-grass plantings have been undertaken to prevent the dunes from burying Route 6 and Provincetown itself, most of us would not want to see the dunes revert to scrub pine and oak.

All of which, I suppose, is to say it is not the earth that is endangered – we are.

A nature writer living in Wellfleet, Robert Finch has written about Cape Cod for more than forty years. He is the author of nine books of essays. A Cape Cod Notebook airs weekly on WCAI, the NPR station for Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and the South Coast. In both 2006 and 2013, the series won the New England Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Radio Writing.