Nature Book Review: Rambunctious Garden

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As I said last week in my review of Changes in the Land, Rambunctious Garden is the perfect follow-up book.  Changes in the Land was written, after all, in 1983.  William Cronon in his introduction critiques the equilibrium approach in ecology and also points to the difficulty of establishing a baseline for any given ecosystem.  How exactly do you figure out what an ecosystem looked like before it’s encounter with humans?  And why do we need to restore any ecosystem to a time before we existed?  Why is that better?

In 2011, ecologists are still wrestling with these questions.  In Rambunctious Garden, Emma Marris lays out the territory of these debates and then offers several possible directions in which we might go from here.  Rambunctious Garden is written for a popular audience, and so is even more readable than Cronon.  But because Marris is not an academic, the book is less meaty.  There are fascinating facts in here, too.  But also a lot more focus on individual ecologists and their stories than Cronon would tolerate as an academic historian.  Here are some of the basic ideas from the book.

First, there is no wilderness left.  Hence, the whole “post-wild world.”  Marris traces our fairly uniquely American obsession with the idea of a pristine wilderness.  This idea is predicated on the cultural blindness that refuses to see Native Americans as actual humans occupying and influencing the landscape before any Europeans ever showed up.  And as a brief sidenote, can I just say how weird that is?  In the Midwest, we live in the midst of these sometimes massive mounds scattered all around our subdivisions and corn fields.  How can you believe in any narrative of untouched wilderness in the face of these rather hugely impressive examples of a landscape altered by humans?

In Europe it’s a little harder to deny the presence of humans for thousands of years.  But you can still visit the last patch of “primeval forest” in Poland–Bialowieza Primeval Forest.  This is advertised as 580 square miles of untouched lowland temperate forest.  But of course, an environmental historian studying the forest has found iron-age cemeteries and concludes that, “…humans have always been connected to the forest.”  In fact, humans have been connected to pretty much every patch of land out there, whether we believe it’s primeval or not.  Humans arrived in most parts of the globe at about the same time the last ice age ended, so we were there, shaping those changing ecosystems from the get-go.  So there probably never was any pristine wilderness, and now there really isn’t, because our human influence (through the mechanism of global climate change and pollution) reaches everywhere now.

So what do we do in the face of that knowledge?  Do we, like some ecologists in Hawaii, try to carve out tiny little niches of land that represent as close as we can get to a pre-human environment?  We can’t re-create them perfectly because we don’t now for sure what these ecosystems looked like and some of the species are extinct.  And the effort of maintaining these areas is sisyphean, as in even harder than me trying to keep weeds out of my garden.  Because not only do you have to keep the weeds out, you’d have to keep the moving invasives out….cats, rats, birds, bugs.  When Marris describes the efforts of some of these ecologists, you kind of want to buy them a beer and suggest they find another line of work.

Do we interfere with ecosystems?  For example, with global climate change, many species have already begun to move north or up in elevation in search of cooler temperatures.  This will be okay if you’re moving north, but there’s only so much space at the top of mountains.  Should you move a plant that only exists on one mountaintop and is running out of room to another mountain?  Or should you just allow it to go extinct rather than risk interfering with existing ecosystems?

Bialowieza Primeval Forest

Marris doesn’t give us answers to all these questions, but she begins to suggest a different way of thinking about nature.  The idea of the rambunctious garden encourages us to see nature in many locations, moving beyond the idea that the best nature is also the most pristine.  We are interacting with nature and we always have.  So let’s begin to think about what shape those interactions should take.  A rambunctious garden is not something we control solely to serve our own ends.  Some parts we control, trying to maintain certain ecosystems.  Some parts we just let alone to do what they will, even if that means an “invasive species” takes over.  Some parts we live in and use.

I found Marris’ solution a little fuzzy and under-articulated.  She talks about planting more native species in our actual gardens, which would encourage biodiversity.  Maybe.  She says on the second page of the book:

This book is about a new way of seeing nature.  Yes, nature is carefully managed 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.

I like this list.  I wanted to hear more about this list.  I’m prepared to embrace the weed patches and the invasive’s.  Bring it on.  Maybe the ecology hasn’t caught up with this list, but I felt like we still heard a whole lot more about the parks than we did about the avocado pit in my compost pile.  In fact, I heard nothing about the avocado pit in my compost pile.  How should I feel about it?

Marris’ spends a lot of time in this book critiquing the existing paradigm of nature and less time laying out what our new paradigm should look like.  Which makes sense, because that’s a difficult question.  What do we do now?  Maybe that’s another book.

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