Book Review: Rambunctious Garden

Last month in a post entitled Making the Case for Saving Species, I reviewed an article written by Emma Marris about doing all we can to prevent species from going extinct, even when the approach is not a popular one – like introducing rust resistant genes into native whitebark pine populations. Intrigued by Marris’ words, I decided to finally read her book, Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild Word, which had been sitting on my bookshelf for several months and had been on my list of books to read for at least a couple of years before that. At only 171 pages, Marris’ book is a quick read and comes across as an introduction to some sort of revolution. Its brevity demands future volumes, which are hopefully on their way.

rambunctious garden

The general topic that Marris addresses is how to do conservation work in a world that is riddled with human fingerprints, especially coming from a perspective that human influence is and has been largely negative. What should our goals be? The traditional approach has been to restore natural areas to a historical baseline. In North America, that baseline is usually pre-European colonization. So, we remove introduced species and we use whatever records we have and data we can gather to make natural areas look and function as they did several hundred years ago.

But there are some concerns with this approach. Rewinding time requires massive amounts of money, labor, and time, and if that historical baseline is ever achieved, it will require great effort to keep it there. Also, a number of species have gone extinct and there is no way of replacing them (unless we introduce similar species as proxies), and some species require large areas to roam that even our most spacious parks cannot accommodate. And then there is the challenge of continual change. Anthropogenic climate change aside (which complicates conservation and restoration efforts in serious ways), the earth’s ecosystems are in a constant state of flux, so holding a site to a pre-determined baseline makes little sense when viewed from a geological timescale.

There is another issue – which is in part a semantic one – and that is, we seem to have a distorted view of nature. We like to think of it as being apart from us, away from us, somewhere wild and pristine. Marris writes: “We imagine a place, somewhere distant, wild and free, a place with no people and no roads and no fences and no power lines, untouched by humanity’s great grubby hands, unchanging except for the season’s turn. This dream of pristine wilderness haunts us. It blinds us.”

We are blinded because “pristine” is a myth. Every inch of the globe has been altered in some way by humans – some areas more than others – and disconnecting ourselves from nature in a way that makes it unattainable deters us from the perception that nature can be all around us. Nature is not found only in national parks, nature preserves, and other protected areas, but in our backyards, on our rooftops, along roadsides, in the cracks of concrete, and in farm fields. Nature is everywhere. And if nature is everywhere, then conservation can happen everywhere.

After a brief overview of how we (Americans specifically) arrived at our current approach to conservation and restoration, Marris dives into some new approaches, visiting sites around the world and talking with biologists and ecologists about their work.  She explores rewilding (Pleistocene rewilding even), assisted migration, embracing exotic species, novel ecosystems, and designer ecosystems. The subject matter of each chapter in Marris’ book is worthy of a post or two of its own, but I’ll spare you that and suggest that you read the book. The controversy that surrounds these novel approaches is also worth noting. A few searches and clicks on the internet will lead you to some fairly heated debates about the ideas that Marris puts forth in her book, as well as some criticisms of Marris herself.

Florida torreya (Torreya taxifolia) - a critically endangered tree species native to a tiny corner in the southeastern United States that is not likely to survive the coming decades in the wild without assisted migration.

Florida torreya (Torreya taxifolia) – a critically endangered tree species native to a tiny corner in the southeastern United States that is not likely to survive the coming decades in the wild without assisted migration. (photo credit: www.eol.org)

My view as an outsider – that is, one without a high level degree in ecology and lacking years of experience working in the field – is that the tools and methods outlined in Marris’ book are worth exploring further. Certainly, each natural area must be approached differently depending on the conditions of the site and the goals of the managers. [Marris offers a great overview of some goals to consider in her last chapter.] Ultimately it is up to people much smarter and more experienced than I to sort it all out. But I heartily encourage thinking outside of the box…for whatever it’s worth.

And that brings me to what I loved most about the book. Controversy aside, Marris’ clarion call for a paradigm shift is a welcome one. Nature is all around us, and regardless of what land managers and the powers that be decide to do with large tracts of land “out there,” every individual can find purpose and beauty in the nature that surrounds them, whether it be the street trees that line our neighborhoods or the vacant lot growing wild with weeds down the street. We can decide to let our yards go a little feral, to plant some native plants, to encourage wildlife in urban areas, and to even do a little assisted migration of our own by planting things from nearby regions just to see how they will do in our changing climate. In short, we can garden a bit more rambunctiously. And we should.

This is how Marris puts it:

If we fight to preserve only things that look like pristine wilderness, such as those places currently enclosed in national parks and similar refuges, our best efforts can only retard their destruction and delay the day we lose. If we fight to preserve and enhance nature as we have newly defined it, as the living background to human lives, we may be able to win. We may be able to grow nature larger than it currently is. This will not only require a change in our values but a change in our very aesthetics, as we learn to accept both nature that looks a little more lived-in than we are used to and working spaces that look a little more wild than we are used to.

Read a short interview with Marris about her book here, and listen to a discussion with her on a recent episode of Out There podcast.

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Making the Case for Saving Species

It is no question that the human species has had a dramatic impact on the planet. As our population has grown and we have spread ourselves across the globe, our presence has altered every ecosystem we have come into contact with. Our footprints can be detected even in areas of the planet uninhabited by humans. As awareness of our impact has increased, we have made efforts to reduce it. However, much of the damage we have caused is irreversible – we can’t bring species back from extinction and we can’t replace mountaintops. Furthermore, for better or for worse our continued existence – despite efforts to minimize our negative influence – will continue to be impactful. This is the nature of being human. It is the nature of all living things, really. As John Muir said, “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” That we are cognizant of that fact puts us at a crossroads – do we make a concerted effort to protect and save other species from the negative aspects of our presence or do we simply go on with our lives and let come what may?

The quandary isn’t that black and white, obviously. For one thing, cleaning up polluted air, water, and soil is beneficial to humans and has the side benefit of improving the lives of other species. Protecting biodiversity is also in our best interest, because who knows what medicine, food, fiber, or other resource is out there in some living thing yet to be discovered that might be useful to us. On the other hand, putting our own interests aside, what about protecting other species and habitats just to protect them? Purely altruistically. That seems to be the question at the crux of an article by Emma Marris in the May/June 2015 issue of Orion entitled, “Handle with Care: The Case for Doing All We Can to Save Threatened Species.” [Listen to a brief discussion with Marris about the article here.]

The main character in Marris’ article is the whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis), a species whose native habitat is high in mountain ranges of western United States and Canada. Whitebark pines thrive in areas few other trees can, living to ages greater than 1,000 years. Here is how Marris describes them:

Whitebark pine’s ecological niche is the edge of existence. The trees are found on the highest, driest, coldest, rockiest, and windiest slopes. While lodgepole and ponderosa pine grow in vast stands of tall, healthy-looking trees, slow-growing whitebarks are tortured by extremes into individualized, flayed forms, swollen with massive boles from frost damage. Their suffering makes them beautiful.

photo credit: www.eol.org

photo credit: www.eol.org

But in recent years they have been suffering more than usual. White pine blister rust, an introduced pathogen, is killing the trees. The native mountain pine beetle is also taking them out. Additional threats include climate change and an increased number, extent, and intensity of wildfires. Combined, these threats have been impactful enough that the species is listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List where it is described as “experiencing serious decline.”

So people are taking action. In Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park, botanist Jen Beck is part of an effort to select blister rust resistant trees and plant them in their native habitats within the park. Hundreds have been planted, and more are on their way. Great effort is taken to minimize human impact and to plant the trees as nature would, with the vision being that blister rust resistant trees will replace those that are dying and that trees with rust resistant genes will dominate the population.

But Beck faces opposition, and not just from challenges like seedlings being trampled by visitors or a warming climate inviting mountain hemlocks and other trees into whitebark pine’s native range, but by people who argue that the trees shouldn’t be planted there in the first place – that what is “wild” should be left alone. Marris specifically calls out a group called Wilderness Watch. They and other groups like them profess a “leave-it alone ethic.” Rather than be arrogant enough to assume that we can “control or fix disrupted nature,” we should respect the “self-willed spirit of the wild world.” Proponents of nonintervention criticize what they call “new environmentalism” and its efforts to engineer or manage landscapes, fearing that these actions are “morally empty” and that “rearranging bits of the natural world” lacks soul and will ultimately serve to benefit humans.

In her article, Marris argues against this approach. First off, the human footprint is too large, and for natural areas to “continue to look and function the way they did hundreds of years ago” will require “lots of human help.” Additionally, nonintervention environmentalism “perpetuates a false premise that humans don’t belong in nature,” and if we decide not to work to protect, save, or restore species and habitats that have been negatively affected by our actions simply because we are “in thrall to wildness”, we will be withdrawing with “blood on our hands.” Marris sums up her position succinctly in the following statement:

We have to do whatever it takes to keep ecosystems robust and species from extinction in the face of things like climate change. And if that means that some ecosystems aren’t going to be as pretty to our eyes, or as wild, or won’t hew to some historical baseline that seems important to us, then so be it. We should put the continued existence of other species before our ideas of where or how they should live.

Marris acknowledges that there are risks to this approach. “Our meddling” may save species, but it could also backfire. But that doesn’t mean the effort wasn’t worth it. We can learn from our mistakes and we can make improvements to our methods. Some sites can even be cordoned off as areas of nonintervention simply so that we can learn from them. The ultimate goal, however, should be to save as many species and to keep as much of their habitat intact as possible. Putting “other species first, and our relationship with them second” is what Marris considers to be a “truly humble” stance in our role as part of nature.

Cones of whitebark pine, Pinus albicaulis (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Cones of whitebark pine, Pinus albicaulis (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

The dichotomy presented in this article is a tough one, and one that will be debated (in my mind particularly) long into the future. If you would like to share your thoughts with me about this issue, do so in the comment section below or by sending me a private message through the contact page.

Other article reviews on Awkward Botany