Re-wilding the monocultural self

While reading the recently published Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, by Emma Marris, I found myself simultaneously cheering and exclaiming with a steely squint: Hey! Real conservationists can’t think this! You’re just giving ammunition for them to lob back at us. Slippery slope turns to avalanche turns into apocalypse! Who the heck to do you think you are?

Now that I’ve finished the book, I’ve decided to go back to applauding Marris for her cheerful heterodoxy and passionately common-sensical approach to conservation issues in the brave new world of the twenty-first century. I began reading with no problems. In the first chapter she says,

Nature is almost everywhere. But wherever it is, there is one thing it is not: pristine. In 2011 there is no pristine wilderness on planet Earth…. [Humans are] running the whole Earth, whether we admit it or not. To run it consciously and effectively, we must admit our role and even embrace it. We must temper our romantic notions of untrammeled wilderness and find room next to it for the more nuanced notion of a global, half-wild rambunctious garden, tended to by us.

So far so good. Recent climate change and the cascade of new realities resulting from it are clear to virtually every scientist and conservation-minded person on the planet. (Insert punchline about Texans and their three-term governor here.) She explains that environmental sciences, especially in the United States, use a baseline, a reference point which, in formulating conservation goals tends to assume an ideal time of pristine, stable wilderness to which nature itself yearns to return, hearkening to a time before the destabilizing pressures of human occupancy. We fouled nature up, so it’s our ethical duty to restore it to its original, Edenic state.

But then she makes things really messy. From what point do we date human occupancy for the sake of conservation goals? And where? Many scientists assume that the time before the arrival of Europeans to the Americas is the time to which we must reset the clock. This is the baseline that many conservation-minded Americans (like me) also assume, most likely unquestioningly (like me). (One of the reasons I call myself a utopian—i.e., not a realist—is my hope, expressed in an earlier post, that human stewardship, particularly by ranchers, might at some point not be the worst thing that ever happened to the Earth.) First of all, religious fundamentalists aren’t the only ones to believe that the Garden of Eden existed as a historical reality. The idea that there has ever been a stable, self-perpetuating ecosystem is problematic:

We are a short-lived species with a notoriously bad grasp of timescales longer than a few of our own generations. But from the point of view of a geologist or a paleontologist, ecosystems are in a constant dance, as their components compete, react, evolve, migrate, and form new communities. Geologic upheaval, evolution, climactic cycles, fire, storms, and population dynamics see to it that nature is always changing.

Nor do scientists always know what any particular ecosystem actually looked like at any pre-baseline time. Nor does the Edenic model take into account the fact that many native peoples had purposeful management systems before the arrival of Europeans. Finally, this baseline is also increasingly impossible to achieve, either through restoration or management practices, because the pressures of climate change and population growth have made turning back the clock about as feasible as stuffing a sixteen-year-old boy into the shoes he wore when he was eight. It isn’t going to happen, especially if he didn’t actually have any shoes when he was eight.

The pristine wilderness toward which so many conservationists aspire is, in fact, an American construction that came into being along with Yellowstone National Park and the science of the nineteenth century, which saw nature as essentially balanced, static, unchanging in its equilibrium. Contemporary environmental sciences clearly demonstrate that the natural world—before human “interference”—never stood still for long. Some of the most revered natural phenomena—old growth forests, for example—can be the result of climactic anomalies, like long wet spells that interrupted wildfires cycles. And what do we do about issues like the mountain goats at Yellowstone, which are now beloved by tourists, but were introduced from several hundred miles away in the 1940s for hunting purposes?

Well, I can cope with the reality that the Wizard of Oz is actually working levers behind a curtain, even as I’d like to be able to ignore him. But one of the unexpected revelations of that unveiling really hooked me under the ribs: the chapter entitled “Learning to Love Exotic Species.” I have often moaned and groaned about the non-native fauna—the fallow, axis, and sika deer, the feral hogs, and the various other oddities—that wander through Madroño Ranch and compete for food with the natives, especially in this drought time. I’m also a member of an advisory board to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the mission of which is “to increase the sustainable use and conservation of native wildflowers, plants and landscapes.” I recently sat in on an excellent and nuanced presentation on invasive species by Damon Waitt, the director of the center’s Native Plant Information Network. I know as surely as I know that north is up and south is down that natives are good and that invasives are bad. But Marris upends the poles and says, think again. Non-natives can be not only not malevolent but actively useful. While some exotic species (a term she prefers to “invasives”) are “rowdy nuisances” that need active and emphatic controlling, there are far more “shy foreigners” who work for the good of their new ecosystems. In fact, there are human-managed—that is, artificial—landscapes filled with exotic species that outperform their “natural” cousins, if performance is measured by biodiversity and provisions of services to all inhabitants and not just humans.

This is when I began to ask the “just who does she think she is” question with my arms akimbo, which is when I realized it wasn’t my scientific, based-on-facts knowledge that was being challenged (it doesn’t take much); rather, it was my own self-identity as a conservation-minded layperson. I was adhering to an orthodoxy I hadn’t realized I subscribed to. I learned at my mother’s knee that any orthodoxy’s tires need a good kicking before you buy. I had climbed into this orthodoxy (a Prius, naturally) without doing so and found that I might be stuck on the side of the road with a flat.

In Marris’s rambunctious garden, however, the side of the road might not be a bad place to be stuck. If it were managed for biodiversity, for beauty, and as a part of a much larger ecosystem—as a stop for migratory butterflies, for example—a stranded motorist might enjoy the wait for help. We’re so used to thinking of “nature” as something outsized and grand and hard to get to that we frequently forget that it’s quite literally underfoot or falling on our sleeves as we walk along a city sidewalk. While it’s not entirely within our control, there are more ways for human being to engage in a fruitful relationship with nature than we currently allow ourselves to imagine.

Marris’s call for biodiversity everywhere—in industrial sites, apparent wastelands, back yards, hybrid ecosystems developed for economic gain—made me realize that unexamined orthodoxy often leads to monoculture, be it agricultural, social, political, intellectual, or spiritual. In industrial agriculture, monocultures rely heavily on pesticides, ridding crops of insects that in a healthy polyculture can be absorbed into the system (sometimes requiring intensive human labor). In the national discussion about immigration, there seems to be a sector demanding social monoculture, using terms that sound very much like the prejudice in environmental circles against “invasive” species. The extremes in both political parties are demanding that their candidates spray any bipartisan thoughts with herbicide. When she first messed with my assumptions, I mentally doused Marris’s proprosals, hoping the threat to my preconceptions would go away. Despite the huge short-term returns of monoculture (in my case, the sure knowledge that I was right), the reality of radically diminished liveliness looms just past the identical crop rows. Re-wilding monocultures of the mind, the heart, and the land—acknowledging that there is no single solution to any complex problem—sounds like a critical strategy in the face of what sometimes feels like a threatening future. According to Marris, it’s our duty to manage nature, but it’s a duty leading to pleasure, beauty, and liveliness. As she urges, “Let the rambunctious gardening begin.”

What we’re reading
Emma Marris, Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World
Martin: H. W. Brands, Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt

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3 Responses to Re-wilding the monocultural self

  1. David Todd says:

    Dear Heather, Onward with rambunctious gardening! You’re right, the 16-year old will not fit within the 8-year old’s shoes. Your wonderful freespirited blog reminded me of Kevin Anderson from Hornsby Bend, and his interest in overgrown weedy places:

  2. Mary Wallace says:

    Bravo, Heather! XXXX

  3. Juli Berwald says:

    Wow! Delightful! I was so wondering what Marris might inspire in you. I had a similar shift in perspective as I read the book and it continues to linger as I look around my world. I love the extension to the political and social environment that you made – fascinating.

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