Several years ago, I spent a month volunteering at Koke’e State Park on Kauai, Hawaii. I was there to enlist in the “war against invasives”, learning to identify and remove plants that threatening to overtake Garden Isle’s native ecosystems. Armed with a machete, a foldup saw, and two squirt bottles of herbicide, a group of us proceeded to take out the primary offenders – fields of kahili ginger (Hedychium gardnerianum), groves of strawberry guava (Psidium cattleianum), and towering Australian tree ferns (Cyathea cooperi). The work itself was satisfying, but in the back of my mind there grew a sad realization that our collectives efforts made little difference in the big picture. Vast areas were already covered with dense stands of invasives and were beyond salvaging. We worked triage, investing our energies on areas where gingers and guavas had not yet gained a significant foothold. But I was forced to accept that the ohia lehua and koa dominated forests we worked so hard to protect will eventually be relegated to existence in small and intensely managed patches. The rest of the landscape would be home to very different ecosystems, dominated by a different assemblage of species. As I learned more about the native plants I was attempting to save, I also began to realize that many were brought over during the Polynesian colonization. This realization led me to think more deeply about ideas of invasive species, pristine ecosystems, and even the essence of nature itself. Are these naturalized species more natural than current invasive species that were spread by hurricanes? Are some complex ecosystems worth more than others? How do we decide which species and lifeforms are good or bad? On what basis does one use to assess what to save and what to kill? These questions were in my mind when I came across a book that explored these issues. In Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, environmental journalist Emma Marris asks the reader to think deeper on the ideas we have of nature and the cultural perceptions we have towards human-influenced lifeforms and ecosystems.
Marris believes that the modern conservation movement is in need of a paradigm shift. Like Michael Pollan in Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, she rejects the implicit idea of purity that lies at the foundation of the wilderness ethic that causes us to value unspoiled and untouched ecosystems above all else. Marris argues that there are now no ecosystems on Earth that have not been affected by us in some way. Rather than chasing after an ideal that no longer exists and living a narrative shaped by relentless decline and despair, she wants humanity to fully accept the ramifications of our actions and embrace our roles as stewards and students of the living world. She wants us to see impacted and altered ecosystems with fresh eyes, to question the implicit assumption that native ecosystems are intrinsically better than changed ecosystems. Using the metaphor of a global rambunctious garden as the foundation for a new and more optimistic narrative for conservation, Marris proposes a future that invites people to reconnect with the living world in every way possible.
Stories We Tell: The Wilderness Narrative
“We cling to fragments of “virgin” or “old growth” forests, to the “last great places,” the ever-rare “intact ecosystems,” but they slip through our fingers. Like slivers of soap, they shrink and disappear. And we mourn. We are always mourning, because we can’t make more of such places. Every year there are fewer of them than the year before.”
– Rambunctious Garden, pp. 1-2
Author Daniel Quinn wrote in his novel Ishmael that “we are bound to enact the story we are given.” Given a narrative borne out the loss of pure wilderness, we can’t help but view the world and our actions within it through a lens of self-loathing and despair. Daily, we are confronted with messages of doom that leaving grievous and personal marks upon our souls. As the ecologically literate, we live, according to Aldo Leopold, “alone in a world of wounds”. This story has no happy ending, only temporary measures that stem the tide. In his book The End of Nature, environmental activist Bill McKibben states that “all we can do is to make it less bad than it will otherwise be. (p.xxii)” For many, this depression outlook is too much to bear. Many are unable to cope with the despair as they see lakes polluted, forests clearcut, landscapes levelled. Others insulate themselves with cynicism and bitterness, growing to mistrust and despise human nature. Does it have to be this way? For all the good it has done to preserve ecosystems, the conventional wilderness narrative has perpetuated alienation and disconnectedness between humans and nature. Nature on one side, pure and “out there”; humans on the other, tainted and corrosive. By fanning the flames of misanthropy, it has crippled the effective reach of the conservation and environmental movement. In an interview at Grist.org, Marris believes this self-loathing attitude must be addressed:
“But I do think that keeping conservation and environmentalism separate from other progressive movements like human rights and global human development has made environmentalism just another special interest fighting for its place, almost in competition with some of these other positive movements. That’s got to change. You can’t just care about nature and not care about humanity. So an ideal mix would be a conservation movement that was also strong on human rights and human development, with a mix of priorities that was decided on in a very fair, democratic way.”
Rambunctious Garden argues for a new story, one in which humans are invited to reconcile and integrate with the living world. This is a story that allows us to move on from constant grief, acknowledging that while humans do harm, we are also capable of doing good. Instead of paralyzing us with messages of doing no harm to nature, it tasks us to consider how we can leave the environment better than we found it. Its core idea is not merely to sustain and maintain the status quo, but to help the living world regenerate and proliferate in all its complexity. This new tale regards the division between nature and humans as a porous one: Nature is not only out there, but also in us; in turn we must acknowledge our role and take serious our responsibility in both shaping and living with the greater biotic community. The notion of purity is rejected, replaced with permission to mingle and change. Marris’ metaphor of a garden is an apt one, for this new narrative is often messy, unpredictable, yet full of opportunities to learn, and asks us to participate more fully with the living world. Instead of navigating through the world wounded and burdened with guilt, we can focus on appreciating and engaging in processes of healing, restoration, and regeneration. One need not be alone in such a world.
Nature beyond the Natural
“I also had a childhood where I spent a lot of time in really crappy ecosystems and had a ball — in badly maintained city parks and third-growth forests — and it just never occurred to me that I wasn’t in nature.”
Perhaps why I find Rambunctious Garden fascinating is that I sense a kindred spirit in Marris. Like her, I spent the vast majority of my childhood in what would be considered impoverished ecosystems – amidst deforested woods, on polluted beaches, in backyard gardens. Yet as a child, I always considered myself in nature, as much as those who went camping in national parks. Ironically, none of those environments could be considered pristine, wild, or natural; yet the richness, wonder, and mystery of the living world still managed to shine through.
Marris also notes that the notion of what is natural varies not only across individuals, but also between cultures. For example, Europeans are much more accepting of intensely managed areas, simply because unlike North Americans, they have come to terms with manipulating, exploiting, exhausting, and restoring their smaller environments for a long period of time:
“Yeah, absolutely, and not necessarily because they’re (Europeans) massively enlightened. It’s because they don’t have the Grand Canyon to distract them. They don’t have the grand wildernesses to take over their mental space, so they’ve been able to see the beauty and complexity of nature in these much smaller canvases. And they’re constantly fiddling with their conservation efforts. Management of nature is just second nature to them. They have to work really hard not to manage things, whereas we have to sort of grit our teeth to admit to ourselves that we do have to manage things.” (Interview with Grist.org)
- Do you have any memorable experiences and connections with nature in places that aren’t considered natural?
The Adding and Deepening of Conservation
“This book is about a new way of seeing nature. Yes, nature is carefully managed national parks and vast boreal forest and uninhabited arctic. Nature is also the birds in your backyard; the bees whizzing down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan; the pines in rows in forest plantations; the blackberries and butterfly bushes that grow alongside the urban river; the Chinese tree-of-heaven or “ghetto palm” growing behind the corner store; the quail strutting through the farmer’s field; the old field overgrown with weeds and shrubs and snakes and burrowing mammals; the jungle thick with plants labeled “invasive” pests; the carefully designed landscape garden; the green roof; the highway median; the five-hundred-year-old orchard folded into the heart of the Amazon; the avocado tree that sprouts in your compost pile.”
– Rambunctious Garden, p.2
It is important to note that Marris is not against the current system of national parks and reserves; rather she asks us to consider adding and deepening to the spirit of conservation, to expand our values to include an appreciation of ecosystems that exist in other non-traditional spaces, whether they be in urban parks, abandoned spaces, backyard gardens, farm fields, or even industrial districts. The degree of human impact upon an ecosystem should not be the sole judge of value of life, for there are many altered ecosystems that have tremendous aesthetic, ecological, and economic value. Beauty and complexity can be found even in an empty parking lot full of hardy weeds, for they are expressions of the resilience and adaptability of life, right before our eyes.
Flipping the Gestalt Switch
Some optical illusions, like the illustration that can be a rabbit or a duck depending on how you look at it, rely on a gestalt switch. You can see an image one way, unable to see the other possibility, and then suddenly your brain flips and sees it the other way. A protected-areas-only, pristine-wilderness-only view of conservation sees a globe with a few shrinking islands of nature on it. Nature is the foreground, human-dominated lands the back-ground. The new view, after the gestalt switch, sees impervious surfaces – pavement, houses, malls where nothing can grow – as the foreground and everything else as the background nature.
– Rambunctious Garden, p.135
Can we as conservationists, naturalists, biologists, ecologists, and environmentalists make that switch in our minds? Are we capable of seeing nature as being everywhere around us and negotiate with it accordingly? Can we come to appreciate qualities exhibited in the common pigeon and the raccoon, the dandelion and the loosestrife as much as we appreciate the sandhill crane, the red panda, and the wolf? Is it possible to appreciate the productivity and complexity of an ecosystem that has been inadvertently shaped by humans as much as one that been shaped ages ago? As Michael Pollan wrote in Second Nature, “can we think less about purity, virginity and pristineness and more about marriage, messiness, and how to better live together?” If we can grapple with these questions honestly, perhaps we can each find our own path towards reconnecting with the world that sustains us. Some may still find communion with nature only by paddling in a pristine lake days away from the nearest town. But many more can perhaps learn to appreciate nature and its complexities in their backyard, at the community garden, in the abandoned lot. Perhaps then we need not grieve that people are not disconnected from the natural world “out there”, but rather rejoice at the fact that they can also be captivated by life that exists before their eyes.
The goals of conservation
In the concluding chapter, Marris articulates seven clearly defined conservation objectives:
- Protect the rights of other species
- Protect charismatic megafauna
- Slow the rate of extinctions
- Protect genetic diversity
- Define and defend biodiversity
- Maximize ecosystem services
- Protect the spiritual and aesthetic experience of nature
She notes that on occasion these goals will be fundamentally incompatible with one another: We can’t have it all. I liked that she also stresses that pursuing any one of these goals above the others constantly is a foolish endeavour. It is up to us as stewards and students of the natural world, with our understanding of ethics, science, and history to ensure that we learn to do what is best for us and the other lifeforms that we share this planet with, to balance our needs with the greater biotic community. There are no simple clearcut answers, but there is a lot we can learn to do better.
Rambunctious Garden is a contentious book. While agreeing with many of her arguments, I personally have difficult accepting several of Marris’ proposals, in particular notions of reintroducing charismatic megafauna (elephants, cheetahs, lions) back to North America as a way to increase biodiversity, or the creation of novel ecosystems based on best available science (which can occasionally be dangerously incomplete). There is a part of me that understands and sympathizes with Marris’ justifications, and another part that balks at the sheer hubris of such exercises. The more I think about the ideas in the book, the more I believe that this controversy may be an intended outcome. I welcome the ability of Rambunctious Garden to confront us with the unspoken assumptions we have about nature, to stimulate discussion about how our ethics and values can shape our actions on this planet, and to consider what narrative we should adopt in order to live in a rapidly changing world.
Next Up: A child and his rambunctious garden.
Marris, Emma. Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. USA: Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2011.
McKibben, Bill. The End of Nature. New York, Random House, 1989.
Pollan, Michael. Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education. Kindle e-book edition. New York: Grove Press, 1991.