Can We Make Nature Even Better? Inside the ‘Rambunctious Garden’

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Published on October 10th, 2011  |  Discuss This Article  

What’s more ecologically valuable — national parks, or median strips and vacant lots? Could dreaded invasive species actually be more beneficial than native ones? Are environmentalists clinging to a timeless notion of nature that science has thoroughly discredited? Can we actually make nature better than it is in its “natural” state?

Emma Marris asks these and other icon-busting questions her new book Rambunctious Garden — potentially the most optimistic and controversial work about the future of nature to appear in years. Marris, a former correspondent for Nature magazine, takes big issue with enviro doom-and-gloomers and last-great-places conservationists, arguing in Rambunctious Garden that pristine wildness has been a myth for at least 13,000 years and that we live on a thoroughly domesticated planet whose nature it’s up to us to manage…and even improve upon. It sounded so heretical that I had to call her up and ask her to explain:


Q: The title of your book — Rambunctious Garden — encapsulates your vision for nature, as a garden that we as humans firmly control, consciously making decisions about which kind of nature goes where. You know that’s going to raise the hackles of a lot of environmentalists, don’t you? It has connotations of playing God and engineering nature solely for our benefit.

EMMA MARRIS:  Yes. I decided to go for it and be provocative, because the title is meant to describe what the Earth is and can be. Because the planet already is a garden, and we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t admit the depth of human influence over nature. We’re in charge about where plants and animals are, either intentionally or unintentionally. It’s our space that we’re landscaping now.

Q: Like a farm?

MARRIS: It doesn’t have to be a sterile, formal garden that doesn’t have any sort of oomph or spirit to it. It can have this rambunctious and free side to it. We can let parts of the garden go feral, and it can have a lot of energy and beauty to it, but it’s still ultimately a garden. We’re still ultimately in charge.

The flip side of that phrase also describes the future home garden. I’m sitting at my desk right now, looking across the street at my neighbor here in Colombia, Missouri, and her front yard is a very short, neat, tidy lawn and about half‑a‑dozen hybrid, sterile, ornamental flowers in a row. If you replace that with something much more biodiverse, much more untended, weedy‑looking, buggy, your biodiversity is going to go way up. Your conservation value can go way up, and you get a more rambunctious kind of garden aesthetic. So I meant for the phrase to work on both scales — the whole planet, and your backyard.

Q: That’s a big theme for the book — that nature is everywhere, and why don’t we embrace that? That nature isn’t just some spectacular landscape, the way most conservation organizations talk about it, but that it’s your backyard, the sliver of median strip you drive by every day, and in vacant lots and industrial waterways, and that’s the sense of nature that we should be cultivating, as background to our everyday lives. But doesn’t that argument really reemphasize the marginality of nature, a nature that’s weedy and degraded and that no one will really fight for?

Emma Marris

MARRIS:  When you use the phrase “marginal” to describe this kind of nature, that’s a tip-off as to where you’re coming from. Because nature isn’t marginal. Dirt is underneath everything — the built landscape floats like islands on the sea of nature. Some of that nature pokes through in skinny bits, but when you connect those together, there’s a lot of nature.

And just because I want people to get out and get excited about the vines growing in the alley doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t also get excited about going to national parks, or that conservation should swerve away from having big interconnected pieces of undeveloped nature for some species. What I’m really proposing is a shift in our value system. What we value and don’t value can change. “Weedy” is an interesting cultural concept — in reality, weeds are successful plants. We should celebrate them, because they’re the plants we don’t have to worry about it. They’re gong to be fine. They’re the resilient part of nature.

But you’re right — we do have a long road to go before we look at an empty lot and, instead of thinking “neglected,” “weedy,” “trash,” we instead think: “Oh, I wonder what species are here. Gosh, there must be lots of pollination going on in this area, and, boy, if I come here at a certain time of day, maybe I can see some neat bird species. And, oh, gosh, isn’t this pretty?” But the weeds are the nature we’re beating back constantly.

Q: Is there enough of that kind of nature around to make a difference, both for biodiversity and for what nature gives us?

MARRIS:  My argument comes down to acreage. Big national parks have an impressive amount of acreage, but if you look at doing conservation in all these little spaces, the combined acreage of those could kick the ass of the acreage of the big parks. It’s just a huge playing field that we can do conservation on. It’s practically everything. Getting a certain amount of conservation value out of farm management, for instance — that would be a huge victory globally.

Q: You write a lot about conservation in Europe versus how it’s practiced in America. Is Europe ahead of America in understanding this?

MARRIS:  Yeah, absolutely, and not necessarily because they’re 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.

Q: You have this fascinating chapter on the Oostvaardersplassen, a nature reserve outside of Amsterdam in which an entire landscape has been designed by an ecologist to run as it did 10,000 years ago, except the predators are largely gone, so it’s been created for nothing to look as if nothing had ever changed. Except, of course, that it’s one of the most intensely managed places you could possibly find outside of agriculture. How do you feel about re‑wilding projects like this?  Are the valuable?  Are they curiosities?  What are they saying to us?

MARRIS: I love that place. I mean, here you are, in one of the tidiest, densest, most organized countries in the world, and then you go through these gates, and all of a sudden, you’re in the savannah, with huge herds of animals running around. It’s fascinating and just unbelievable.

And if part of what we value about nature is that sense of awe that it can give us, I was awed by that place. They’ve also had a lot of success attracting animals that have showed up voluntarily and responded well to the habitat. So I think that if that keeps happening, then the Oostvaardersplassen is an argument that re‑wilding projects are not just curiosities but can be really valuable conservation tools.

Q: Back to the garden idea: You’re advancing a radical idea in this book — that people can make more nature or better nature than we have now. That cuts directly against the usual pessimistic paradigm of environmentalism — as advanced by Bill McKibben and others — which assumes that there is a set amount of nature, that nature left alone is the ideal, and all we can do is defend it against the ravages of rampant development. How did you come to this idea?

MARRIS: Partly because I was never classically trained as either an ecologist or an environmentalist. So I came to the ecology and conservation beat at Nature as an outsider, and while I sort of casually held a number of the sort of common beliefs about what is wilderness and what counts as nature, I wasn’t really wedded to them culturally. So it was easier for me to see where some of the more traditional ideas of conservation and environmentalism are starting to come apart at the seams a little bit, the more we learn about paleoecology and the dynamic nature of ecosystems and how nature has always been changing. And this thinking has been popping up at ecology conferences over the last few years.

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.

Q: But you’re basically saying there is no wilderness anymore — that nature as we once thought about it, a place apart from humanity, untouched by it — doesn’t exist.

MARRIS: That’s now generally acknowledged in the literature. I have to add: My personal experiences in nature have always been pretty close to the road, and when I started hanging out with ecologists, I found that they were sticking pretty close to the road, too. Then it sort of suddenly hit me: Everything is now close to the road. You have to work really hard to get away from it.

Q: Conservation doesn’t come off really well in your book — it seems dogmatic, nostalgic, sometimes even anti-scientific, and not ready to take up the challenge of the economic and cultural forces that seem to be arrayed against it. In your view, how can conservation catch up?

MARRIS: First, I hope I don’t come across as really beating up on conservationists, because I admire them very much, and I feel that what they’re trying to do is a really important thing.

One priority I think conservation has to focus on more is genetics. I’ve very fond of using a genetic lens — genes are the raw material of what we have to work with for the future, so it seems a smart move to throw out as few genes as possible.

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.

I also think that there will be change toward the directions I outline in the book — whether the conservation field wants them or not — just on the basis of generational turnover of its scientists. There’s that old chestnut about there are no revolutions in science, you just wait for the old guard to die, and I think there’s probably a bit of truth to that in this case, too.

Q: In the book, you talk about a number of bêtes noire for conservation — including assisted migration of species in the face of climate change to other geographies where they might have a chance of surviving. That’s still a really controversial topic with conservationists.

MARRIS:  Conservationists should get on board with assisted migration, because the industry is going to lead the way. What is industry going to move? Timber species, crop species. They might, if they’re clever, move the wild ancestors of crop species, so that we’ll still have good pools of them to play with, and they might move horticultural species. But who is going to move everything else? Who is going to move the little squiggly guys that aren’t as glamorous or aren’t commercially valuable? If conservationists find the whole thing too distasteful because it’s meddling with nature, then they might as well stand back and watch those squiggly guys turn to charcoal.

Q: Final question: What’s your favorite place on Earth, and does it match up with the kind of nature that in Rambunctious Garden you’re asking people to revalue?

MARRIS:  I grew up in Seattle, and I really like the forests in the Pacific Northwest. They don’t have to be old growth. What I really love is the bounce of the turf in a forest with lots of cedar and Douglas fir, because of all the needles that have accumulated in the turf.

Q: So not necessarily a managed place?

MARRIS: No, although I’m also thinking about a place I haven’t been to in years in the Cascade Mountains, which a childhood friend’s parents owned, which had third-growth forest with mostly alders and salmonberries and other early successional stuff, and then some big, old stumps from when it had been logged. I spent many happy summers there just really enjoying the space. It never really occurred to me that the nature there wasn’t good enough.

(Image: New York City’s High Line Park. Image credit: notladj/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

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8 Responses to “Can We Make Nature Even Better? Inside the ‘Rambunctious Garden’”

  1. Gloria says:

    And when we have nothing left but these little spaces the author speaks of,everything will still be hunky dory huh. I fear her kind. I have admired what the Nature Conservancy is doing for many years. Please don’t let small minds diminish what we think is possible. Plant the median,watch the birds and insects in your garden but keep the dream of open spaces untouched or not.

  2. Steve Morvell says:

    Emma I think you will agree your views about what is or is not good enough are simply a human view point. Although humans are a part of nature and must factor that into any environmental equation…..we are from a global perspective….still….a relatively small part of it….although we are starting to have bigger impacts. Your views are very much inline with the fundaments of Zen Buddhism and in the end humans must recognise that we do NOT own the planet….and we do NOT own the right to it. There are many more non human nations on this planet and until humans begin to take account of them in equal terms we have no long term hope for ourselves as a species. Gardening is a perspective only humans have….and is a colossal arrogance on our part to think we could ever MANAGE a bioshpere which is too complex for any human mind to comprehend. We must remember we do not own the earth….the earth owns us (after all it is from the earth that we spring).

  3. Fred Bass says:

    If by “nature” we mean ecological causality, then we are always immersed in nature, regardless of its particular form. The world is a dynamic place and has been since it started. A Green History of the World by Clive Ponting illustrates this well and also shows some of the dysfunctional routes civilizations have travelled in terms of screwing up their ecological support systems.
    Where Bill McKibben is right is that man is by far the most radical species yet scene and, given his (yes, his) long-term track record, he needs to be brought to heel (which nature will do if we won’t).

  4. Fred Bass says:

    2nd parag, not scene but seen

  5. Lichanos says:

    Q: Back to the garden idea: You’re advancing a radical idea in this book…

    Take a drive through the English countryside in Spring. It’s glorious, overwhelming. It’s a garden, all managed and tended, but it certainly is ‘Nature.’ In fact, it was, for a long time, the ideal of Nature. Today, we have substituted wilderness, the sublime, the images from Bierstadt paintings. That’s McKibben. But one’s as valid as another.

  6. Hal Hasser says:

    I agree with Gloria above, and am very disappointed that TNC is given any air time to these very naive ponderings. I was dismayed to see this article published in the latest issue of TNC’s magazine. It is a fact that we are losing native species and their ecosystems at an alarming and ever-increasing rate. Enjoy a weedy city garden and marvel at the tenacity of invasive plants, sure, but don’t think for a minute that these patches can ever provide or replace the life-sustaining ecosystem functions we depend on.

  7. Gloria Bennett says:

    Another really positive contribution from Emma Marris. Some typical disparaging comments from contributors above unfortunately. Comments like these have become an inevitability in these forums. Hal above doesn’t even think that Emma’s views should be allowed to be published! Just shows the level of religiosity around these issues. So many sacred cows and things you are and aren’t allowed to say. Emma has really good motives. Her goal more than anything seems to be to get people to connect in a more positive way again with nature nearby and not see themselves and many other organisms (e.g. exotic species) as ‘the enemy’. Unfortunately there are no easy answers and a lot of compromise and give and take will be required. This is very hard to fathom for the conservation priests who were very comfortable with the black and white image of a world in which pre-human times were always held up as the ideal with humans left to constantly apologising for their existence. Frankly, however, I am sick of their world view.

    Good luck Emma and don’t let the pessimists get at you.

  8. Having read this and similar articles describing “Novel Ecosystems,” and trying to be a pragmatist as well as an ecologist and naturalist, I do understand the intrigue behind studying what exactly is going on in these highly disturbed and altered ecosystems.

    However, I AM an ecologist and a naturalist, and my intrigue is limited to an interest in what is happening in already occurring messes, and more importantly in learning how to avoid creating more of them.

    As for any “disparaging remarks” made, I think that for anyone who actually has studied ecology in depth—a study which does not brainwash anyone into a uniform belief system, but provides information and allows many different people from many different backgrounds to all arrive at the same logical conclusions—the idea of accepting “Novel Ecosystems” or even worse, purposefully creating more, is not merely a contradiction to our studies but a contradiction to what we consider simple logic.

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