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Out of Control

Steve Packard set out to extend the habitat of authentic prairie. On the way he resurrected a lost ecosystem, and perhaps acquired the assembly instructions for a savanna. Working in an ocean of water instead an ocean of grass, David Wingate in Bermuda set out thirty years ago to nurse a rare species of shorebird back from extinction. On the way, he recreated the entire ecology of a subtropical island, and illuminated a further principle of assembling large functioning systems.

The Bermuda tale involves an island suffering from an unhealthy, ad hoc, artificial ecosystem. By the end of World War II, Bermuda was ransacked by housing developers, exotic pests, and a native flora wrecked by imported garden species. The residents of Bermuda and the world's scientific community were stunned, then, in 1951 by the announcement that the cahow -- a gull-size seabird -- had been rediscovered on the outer cliffs of the island archipelago. The cahow was thought to be extinct for centuries. It was last seen in the 1600s, around the time the dodo had gone extinct. But by a small miracle, a few pairs of breeding cahows hung for generations on some remote sea cliffs in the Bermuda archipelago. They spent most of their life on water, only coming ashore to nest underground, so they went unnoticed for four centuries.

As a schoolboy with a avid interest in birds, David Wingate was present in 1951 when a Bermudan naturalist succeeded in weaseling the first cahow out of its deep nesting crevice. Later, Wingate became involved in efforts to reestablish the bird on a small uninhabited island near Bermuda called Nonsuch. He was so dedicated to the task that he moved -- newly married -- to an abandoned building on the uninhabited, unwired outer island.

It quickly became apparent to Wingate that the cahow could not be restored unless the whole ecosystem of which it was part was also restored. Nonsuch and Bermuda itself were once covered by thick groves of cedar, but the cedars had been wiped out by an imported insect pest in a mere three years between 1948 and 1952. Only their huge white skeletons remained. In their stead were a host of alien plants, and on the main island, many tall ornamental trees that Wingate was sure would never survive a once-in-fifty-year hurricane.

The problem Wingate faced was the perennial paradox that all whole systems makers confront: where do you start? Everything requires everything else to stay up, yet you can't levitate the whole thing at once. Some things have to happen first. And in the correct order.

Studying the cahows, Wingate determined that their underground nesting sites had been diminished by urban sprawl and subsequently by competition with the white-tailed tropicbird for the few remaining suitable sites. The aggressive tropicbird would peck a cahow chick to death and take over the nest. Drastic situations require drastic measures, so Wingate instituted a "government housing program" for the cahow. He built artificial nest sites -- sort of underground birdhouses. He couldn't wait until Nonsuch reestablished a forest of trees, which tip slightly in hurricanes to uproot just the right-sized crevice, too small for the tropic bird to enter, but just perfect for the cahow. So he created a temporary scaffolding to get one piece of the puzzle going.

Since he needed a forest, he planted 8,000 cedar trees in the hope that a few would be resistant to the blight, and a few were. But the wind smothered them. So Wingate planted a scaffold species -- a fast-growing non-native evergreen, the casuarinas -- as a windbreak around the island. The casuarinas grew rapidly, and let the cedars grow slowly, and over the years, the better-adapted cedars displaced the casuarinas. The resown forest made the perfect home for a night heron which had not been seen on Bermuda for a hundred years. The heron gobbled up land crabs which, without the herons, had become a pest on the islands. The exploded population of land crabs had been feasting on the succulent sprouts of wetland vegetation. The crab's reduced numbers now allowed rare Bermudan sedges to grow, and in recent years, to reseed. It was like the parable of "For Want of a Nail, The Kingdom Was Lost," but in reverse: By finding the nail, the kingdom was won. Notch by notch, Wingate was reassembling a lost ecosystem.

Ecosystems and other functioning systems, like empires, can be destroyed much faster than they can be created. It takes nature time to grow a forest or marsh because even nature can't do everything at once. The kind of assistance Wingate gave is not unnatural. Nature commonly uses interim scaffolding to accomplish many of her achievements. Danny Hillis, an artificial intelligence expert, sees a similar story in the human thumb as a platform for human intelligence. A dexterous hand with a thumb-grasp made intelligence advantageous (for now it could make tools), but once intelligence was established, the hand was not as important. Indeed, Hillis claims, there are many stages needed to build a large system that are not required once the system is running. "Much more apparatus is probably necessary to exercise and evolve intelligence than to sustain it," Hillis wrote. "One can believe in the necessity of the opposable thumb for the development of intelligence without doubting a human capacity for thumbless thought."

When we lie on our backs in an alpine meadow tucked on the perch of high mountains, or wade into the mucky waters of a tidal marsh, we are encountering the "thumbless thoughts" of nature. The intermediate species required to transform the proto-meadow into a regenerating display of flowers are now gone. We are only left now with the thought of flowers and not the helpful thumbs that chaperoned them into being.