By: Hudson Spivey
for Mountain West News
Oct. 12, 2012
“Rambunctious gardening is proactive and optimistic; it creates more and more nature as it goes, rather than just building walls around the nature we have left.”
For too long conservationists have clung to the notion of "pristine" wilderness, believing that the only places worth saving are those still undefiled by the human hand—so argues science writer Emma Marris in her recent, thought-provoking book.
According to Marris, as of the year 2011, "there is no pristine wilderness on planet earth."
In fact, there's little reason to believe there ever was. Through the use of fire, hunting, and later farming, humans have been interacting with and shaping environments across the world for millennia. Now, with the advent of anthropogenic climate change, "our reach is truly global."
What does this mean for conservation? Rather than abandon their cause, Marris argues that conservationists must re-think their values and goals to meet the challenges of our "post-wild" world.
In 10 easily digestible chapters, Marris takes us on a whirlwind tour of the tumultuous field of conservation science, where researchers are grappling daily with the conundrums of protecting nature in a thoroughly unnatural world. Along the way, she prods some of the most sacred cows of conservation in the hopes of pushing practitioners towards a "role less focused on restoration to historical states," and more open to "the possibilities of designing, engineering, cooking up something new."
Foremost among the sacred cows that Marris skewers is the "pristine wilderness ideal." From its origins in the thinking of Henry David Thoreau and John Muir to its realization in the landscapes of Yellowstone and Yosemite national parks, "wilderness" was something that had to be created before it could be protected.
"Both Yosemite and Yellowstone were populated before they were parks," Marris writes. Only by first expelling the native inhabitants of these two areas were they made to appear "pristine." In truth, both landscapes, along with other protected landscapes the world around, were shaped by generations of human inhabitation.
With the pristine wilderness ideal debunked, Marris then reveals a new horizon for 21st century conservation: "We can make more nature. We can make things on Earth better, not just less bad."
To show what this might look like, she introduces us to conservationists who recognize that humans have always played a role in shaping landscapes, but that human design—or even disruption—doesn’t necessarily mean a place is worthless to conservation.
Along the way we meet scientists in the Netherlands who are restoring the Oostvaardersplassen, a 23-square-mile nature reserve, to its pre-human condition—a new approach known as "Pleistocene Rewilding." And because most of the species that roamed this patch of coastal Europe 10,000 years ago are now extinct, scientists have turned to using "proxy animals," modern relatives that they hope will fulfill the same ecological roles of their extinct forebears. As a place "man-made to be wild," writes Marris, the Oostvaarderplassen illustrates the new frontier of conservation.
With states like Wyoming currently fighting the spread of invasive zebra mussels, Marris’s chapter on "Learning to Love Exotic Species" seems poised to stir up debate.
Here we learn of scientist Dov Sax, who argues in a controversial paper that non-native species invasions are actually leading to increased biodiversity on oceanic islands. Sax’s data is convincing, but his conclusions are tantamount to heresy in a conservation community committed to the "invasive species" paradigm. To illustrate Sax’s point, Marris tours a tree plantation in Puerto Rico where the production of biomass—a common baseline indicator for forest health—actually outperforms the neighboring native ecosystems.
Does this mean the protection of "intact" ecosystems—those with their original array of native species—is irrelevant? Not exactly. Marris instead urges conservationists to reassess the value of ecosystems that would otherwise be written off as too disturbed to conserve. In her words, "waste spaces are ripe for conservation."
From abandoned tree plantations in Hawaii to wastewater canals in urban Seattle, such "novel ecosystems" can be re-designed to "function as well or better than native ecosystems and provide for humans with ecosystems services of various kinds—from water filtration and carbon sequestration to habitat for rare species." The creation of such novel ecosystems is what she means by "rambunctious gardening."
A longtime writer for the science journal Nature, Marris is at her best when unpacking scientific research for the general reader.
At other times, her penchant for brevity risks over-simplifying some of the biggest questions facing the field conservation, as when she writes:
"What happens to the concept of 'invasive species' if you fold humanity back into nature and consider us just another way species move around, along with migration and ocean currents? Prest-o, change-o, it disappears."
Few, if any, working land managers—like those facing an imminent zebra mussel invasion—could be so blithe in their dismissal. In such instances, her purpose is not so much to change minds, but to stimulate valuable and much-needed discussion.
Ultimately, however, Rambunctious Garden promises to open up new approaches to conservation that might help us enrich our truly new, human-dominated, world. This includes working in urban, suburban, and rural areas.
As she writes:
'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 of human lives, we may be able to win."
Regardless of whether or not one agrees with all of Marris’s paradigm-shifting assertions, Rambunctious Garden is a book sure to provoke much-welcome debate in the conservation community. Whether you are a working land manager, conservation advocate or concerned citizen, it would make a fine addition to anyone’s bookshelf.
Hudson Spivey is a graduate student in the Environmental Studies program at the University of Montana, where he co-edits the nature writing journal, Camas: The Nature of the West. .