nature, with or without quotation marks

I already had some idea that our modern ideas about what used to be here, before Europeans arrived, were pretty misguided.

But reading 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles Mann, I came across a passage that has me a little befuddled. It has to do with what happened when earthworms, which were not here before, came to America with the Europeans:

In worm-free woodlands, leaves pile up in drifts…Trees and shrubs in wormless places depend on [leaf] litter for food. If [introduced] worms tuck nutrients into the soil, the plants can’t find them. Many species die off…Birds, lizards, and mammals that feed in the litter decline as well.

Nobody knows what happens next. “Four centuries ago, we launched this gigantic, unplanned ecological experiment,” [a researcher] told me. “We have no idea what the long-term consequences will be.”

I know I shouldn’t be surprised at the extent to which we humans have altered the landscape, but there’s something about this passage which feels so fundamental, so thoroughgoing in its description of change. It makes me wonder: What, exactly, are we trying to preserve?

Nothing pristine, that’s for sure. The earthworm’s range, according to the sources, is the entire continent. That means that Yellowstone and the Maine woods and Texas are all different, thanks to the earthworm.

Is there such a thing as “wildness”? Do we have to reconcile ourselves to doing nothing more than saving the closest thing to nature we have left? Does the word of necessity need to be in quotation marks – “nature” – from now on?

Or did we go wrong way back in the beginning, when we decided that “this” – whatever “this” was – was original, pristine wilderness, and so we had a duty to preserve it? Did we have the right instinct, but the wrong reason?

As I said…I’m a bit befuddled.