Gardening on the Planet

Are you a “New Conservationist”?

In a recent issue of the New Yorker I learned that the current head of the Nature Conservancy is a “new conservationist” who’s butting heads with “traditional conservationists.” ramAlso termed “eco-pragmatism,” this growing attitude among environmentalists challenges the traditional goal of preserving nature in some pristine condition or returning it to a time when nature was presumed to be untouched by humans, a notion that’s been disproved.  Plus, with climate change, there’s no place on Earth untouched by human intervention.  Pragmatists (like Peter del Tredici) look to the eco-services rendered by nonnative species, rather than hoping for budgets large enough to get rid of them.

But traditionalists are having none of it.   When new conservationist Emma Marris suggested at an ecology conference that we accept some nonnative species as legitimate parts of the ecosystem,” traditionalist E.O. Wilson responded, “Where do you plant that white flag you’re carrying?”

Around the same time I saw Marris mentioned in the New Yorker I noticed her again in Landscape Architecture Magazine making some sensible points in a book review, so I looked into her other writing, only to discover she’d authored this book whose cover looked familiar to me but I’d never read or heard much about in gardening circles.

Marris’s appearances on stage and in interviews, captured on Youtube, have made me even more eager for the arrival of my copy of her book.

YouTube Preview Image

Fascinating stuff!  There’s also a trailer for Rambunctious Garden.

Then last weekend the New York Times published “Rethinking the Wild”  about a “heresy echoing through America’s woods and wild places,” tossing out the hands-off approach to wild places in favor of a more “nuanced, flexible approach” that might could include nonnative species and even assisted migration.  The author concludes, “In short, we need to accept our role as reluctant gardeners.”

Speaking of gardening, that’s how we create nature where we are, right? Gardeners are optimistic people, and Marris’s optimism is a refreshing change in the conversation.

Posted by on July 11, 2014 at 7:41 am, in the category Gardening on the Planet.
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51 Responses to “Are you a “New Conservationist”?”

  1. I reacted the same way, Susan. Felt like a breath of fresh air just wafted through that musty conservationist room.

  2. Thank you for bringing this important conversation to a new audience: Emma’s book is fantastic.

    Even a few of us native plant “purists” love it, precisely because it liberates us from the futile goal of “restoring” the past and instead opens up the possibility of creating a future full of wildlife and healthy native ecosystems in our gardens and cities.

    I guess I fancy an articulate heretic, too!

  3. Ivette Soler says:

    YES YES YES!!! THIS. Susan, thank you so much – THESE are the ideas I have been trying to put forward! To try and pick a time when our environment was pristine and “native”, untouched by the hand of man, and to try and recreate that, is like trying to live in a renaissance faire. These are romantic notions of what we imagine the past was like. We are guilty of the part we play in the “destruction” of our planet, but the fact is that our planet has had many cycles of destruction and rebirth, and our hand in it is also part of nature.
    I never get how natives only activists decide the time that we “turn the clock back” to. Our planet and its rhythms are set on a larger clock – environments change over time and are impacted by climate, insects, avian life, and by people. We are without a doubt able to impact this world faster, and with a potentially more devastating nonchalance, but to respond to this by deciding that we just pick a time when things were “Pristine” and “Native” seems like story telling – we might as well be telling ourselves that “once upon a time, the garden of eden was right here and I am rebuilding it”.
    We need something more nuanced than the current binary of “native gardeners are saving the world and gardeners who utilize non-native palettes are destroying the landscape”
    Too many communities, held in the thrall of this native plant activist movement, are pulling down old stands of healthy, well adapted non-native trees in order to replace them with natives. What utter foolhardiness. We can’t turn back a clock – our climate is changing and what worked in the “olden days” may not be as optimal in the realities of now! But let’s leave the blinders on and go back to when things were better (as if that kind of thinking as EVER worked!)
    I was recommended the book recently – I am eager to dive in!

    • If the only native plant advocate you know are talking about trying to “turn the clock back” then you need to expand your circle of friends: there are many good reasons to use native plants in a garden that have nothing to do with nostalgia, and most native plant gardeners I know can tell you all about them.

    • You’re doing a great job of reducing what native plant advocates call for and helping create a false black / white binary to encourage even more angst. Who talks about pristine nature? Let’s get to the much deeper issue of how we influence the earth, if that’s a good thing, and what it means to future generations. For me, advocating for native plants has more to do with the psychology / awareness of our role on the planet, and awakening us to the fact that our actions (all of them, not just in gardens) have consequences both positive and negative. We live a very divorced life in our culture from nature, always privileging our wants and desires over any other species. I think if we stopped doing this we’d be a happier and healthier species. So for me, seeing the benefits of plants adapted to my region and that co-evolved to support local wildlife above and below the soil line is one way to connect me to the web we share. It’s deep ecology at work.

      • Astrid Bowlby says:

        Benjamin, this is a beautifully put and heartfelt comment. And I share your sentiments. At the same time, I have always wondered why it was okay for a seed to be carried by a bird, or on a tide, or the wind, or in the feces of a bear, but not in the pants cuff of a human being. The only differencce, but an important one, is that we are aware. But the awareness and the unwittingness are all a part of nature. We are a part of nature. Yet I do not think that makes us any less responsible. The seed gets moved, the seed gets planted. Then what? We get to understand. And we get to choose. And we get to act. This is part of evolution, too.
        Thank you.

  4. tara dillard says:

    How much of USA can no longer grow its natives because the environment has been changed by us?

    When will agriculture meet ornamental horticulture in the public domain? Which schools have both, and teach that ornamental horticulture can increase crop yields by 80%?

    Is Urban Gardening only fabulous/needed/a photo-op in cities & not gated communities with strict HOA’s?

    Thanks for posting about Emma.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  5. skr says:

    Love this book. It should be a must read for every gardener.

  6. Let’s see; I’m surrounded by native prairie dotted with two species of native Echinacea; yet in my garden grows ‘PowWow’. Along with some native big bluestem, my garden has clumps of Miscanthus sp., and various commercial cultivars of Panicum. I grow lavenders, nonnative to Kansas, for the bees. Yeah, I believe I could be a “new conservationist.”

  7. I had a real hard time reading most of this book the past winter, but toward the end I began to see where she was coming from and generally agreed with her (after much yelling). I don’t think any gardener or environmentalist would say there’s even an inch of untouched anything anymore, or that we can turn back the clock — climate zones mover north at 3.8′ per day, so what we plant now will be screwed in a decade (I have an upcoming Houzz article on gardening for climate change). Out here on the Plains though, prairie plants are well adapted to climatic swings, so I go with them first.

    Yes, we now must be gardeners of this earth, but this should not be a celebration, instead a reluctant realization of what we’ve done to the planet. I think we’re always excited to skip the grieving process — the realization of what we’ve done and why we need to change — and I think Emma Marris helps us skip facing a very much needed stage of grief on the way to doing some really spectacular good. I encourage folks to the read The Green Boat by Mary Pipher, a psychologist who looks at how we deny our hand in environmental change at the cost of doing much more good and being truly liberated and empowered when it comes to living in the natural world.

    • skr says:

      “don’t think any gardener or environmentalist would say there’s even an inch of untouched anything anymore…”

      Anymore? That has been the case for at least a few thousand years when indigenous North American inhabitants hunted all the megafauna to extinction. A environmental event so large that it can still be seen in the climate record.

  8. skr says:

    Coincidentally, Graham Rice has a piece up about a new book that is not yet released called “Where Do Camels Belong”. It looks like it will be an interesting look at invasive species.

  9. Sue Reed says:

    I am continually shocked by how completely wrong the premises of “new ecologists” are, relative to what they see as the old useless ecological way of thinking.

    No ecological designer wants to turn back the clock to some imaginary starting point. None of us believes that some “pristine baseline of perfect nature” is the goal. No conservationist thinks that creating some sort of untouched nature is the only or best way to garden. I get almost breathless with frustration that this false premise is what now must be debunked, that a ‘breath of fresh air” involves overturning this totally over-simplified, totally black and white extremist position that does not exist, in order to promote the marvelous new idea that “we can have more nature” if we ignore the basic patterns and processes of a world that is largely determined by the forces of evolution and chance, as opposed to the forces of human intervention.

    The whole point of ecological gardening is to promote healthy, rich, diverse ecosystems that allow nature’s processes to work in support of outcomes that we don’t understand and can’t predict but which include countless relationships and interactions that knit the world together. The whole point is to let nature in our domesticated landscapes be a bit (or a lot) more natural than traditional gardening has allowed it to be. Comparing this type of ideal to the highly contrived landscape shown in the video interview with Ms. Marris (above) makes absolutely no sense, since that landscape is PRECISELY the kind of landscape ecological gardening has been trying to fix for decades.

    Some of us believe that the best way to do this is to use primarily, or only, species that are both locally indigenous and, most important, NOT produced by the hybridists and horticulturists whose main goals are 1) to sell more plants, 2) to perpetuate the idea that gardens must be endlessly fascinating to us humans, and 3) to perpetuate their own industry.

    Emma Marris’s message may seem like a breath of fresh air to some, but I’m with E.O. Wilson: “pragmatic ecology” is actually a sad capitulation to the pressures of a difficult and often disheartening challenge. Changing the terms of the challenge is no solution.

    • Sue, I think you might be underestimating the divide between “old school” environmentalism and “new school” environmentalism.

      I agree with you that some folks are guilty of oversimplifying the viewpoints of people with whom they disagree (this is a frequent problem in all walks of like, I suspect).

      At the same time, there IS a real philosophical divide – or, at least, a continuum – that practitioners and ecologists are confronting. The reaction of some hardline folks against efforts by groups like Nature Conservancy and National Wildlife Federation are proof positive of it.

      Indeed, in your own response I see evidence of this divide in the fact that you call out “hybridizes and horticulturists” as a target: these folks are typically pilloried by “old school” environmentalists and embraced by “new school” (aka “pragmatic”) environmentalists.

      Emma Marris wrote a very approachable book on this topic, but I also highly recommend “Living Through the End of Nature: The Future of American Environmentalism” by Paul Wapner for a little more detailed (and dense) treatment of the topic.

      https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/16248695-living-through-the-end-of-nature

    • B. Moisset says:

      Thanks Sue Reed for being the voice of reason. You said it very clearly. I don’t have much to add.
      The “old ecologist” as somebody stack on a “pristine baseline” is nothing but a straw man. The dichotomy between new and old ecologists is false. Granted that we all have to be pragmatists in some instances but that is no reason to give up to the extent proposed by Emma Marris.

      • Beatriz, in the context of this debate within ecological circles the “old ecologist” is definitely NOT defined as someone stuck on a “pristine baseline”.

        The divide between old and new is simultaneously more nuanced AND much more deep than that.

        Also, if you think that Emma Marris has “given up” – or proposes that anyone else “give up” – then I think you’ve misread her terribly.

        While some ecologists who have embraced the Anthropocene have done so blindly and without regard to the full consequence of human decisions, most of the ones I’ve read are much more full of optimism than pessimism.

        If there ever was a battle between Man and Nature, it’s over: Nature lost.

        What folks like Marris, Kareiva, Wapner, McKibben, Ellis, Tallamy, and others are doing is simply acknowledging that fact, then asking us what KIND of world we want to see going forward.

        If it is one full of diversity and wildlife, then embracing a post-nature world full of as many native plants (and native plant ecosystems) as we can is precisely what we should be doing. And CAN do. That is not a pessimistic position at all, from where I sit.

    • Skeptic says:

      “…healthy, rich, diverse ecosystems that allow nature’s processes to work in support of outcomes that we don’t understand and can’t predict but which include countless relationships and interactions that knit the world together.”

      Marris’s point (supported by Sax, Chew, Kareiva, and others) is that “novel” ecosystems are also well described by your words. The natural processes that make up “novel” ecosystems are, well, natural. They are no different than the natural processes that make up ecosystems of native plants. In fact, no ecologist, walking into an ecosystem for the first time, can tell whether it is “novel” or primarily “native” without knowing the history of the place. It’s all nature.

      The dichotomy between “old ecologists” and newer research is quite real. What I have said here is met with enraged blood-filled faces and loud shouting from “old ecologists” and their acolytes. You can be shouted down just for calling a 150 year old forest in the Bay Area a “forest,” because it must be called, according to the ecologically pure, a “plantation.” But, as Maris makes clear, the times they are a changin’.

  10. Mary McAllister says:

    Yes, Susan, I think you will enjoy this book. It is a paradigm shift and Marris was courageous in leading the way into the brave new world of accepting nature as we find it rather than constantly fighting against it in a pointless and destructive way.

    There is no place on earth that has not been altered by man and the processes that have brought those changes will not stop. We aren’t going to quit traveling, migrating, or importing and exporting what we manufacturer all over the world and it looks as though we are unwilling to do anything about the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate change. Therefore, trying to eradicate plants and animals that in most cases WE PUT THERE, is wasteful of scarce resources but is also doing a great deal of damage. We are spraying our public lands with toxic herbicides. We are aerial bombing rodenticides onto islands. The list is long and appalling of the horrible things we are doing in the name of “conservation.”

    Enjoy Emma’s book and do tell her how much you liked it. She has taken a terrible beating from the old guard and deserves our support. (As does Peter Kareiva of the Nature Conservancy for standing up to the old guard, IMO).

  11. Sylvia Hacker says:

    Great book.

  12. Mary Gray says:

    I loved this book, too. You might also like this classic essay by William Cronon called “The Trouble With Wilderness”

    http://www.williamcronon.net/writing/Trouble_with_Wilderness_Main.html

    Cronon reminds us that our romantic ideas about unspoiled wilderness are basically a cultural phenomenon. I honestly am perplexed by people who want to “grieve” about all the stuff we’ve “messed up” on the planet. Am I supposed to wallow in guilt because I live in the suburbs with clean drinking water and electricity? That I have my nutritional needs met by food trucked in by vehicles that consume resources? That I live in a safe society with little fear of disease? All these comforts require displacement of other species.

    How did E.O. Wilson get to that conference? When he was there, did he hunt his own lunch, or was it trucked in?

    I think the difference between “old” and “new”conservationists is that the first group thinks the world would be better off without human beings and the second group doesn’t. The first group looks on human aspiration and imagination as the source of all the world’s problems, while the second group sees them as an asset, as the world’s best hope.

    • Astrid Bowlby says:

      Mary,

      I think it is important to be aware that all of your comforts not only displace other species, they displace other humans. I do not think you need to feel guilty about this. I think you need to make choices to either mitigate it and reduce your footprint, while still living a comfortable life. (And this is very possible, by the way), Or embrace the fact that many others of your own species suffer in order for you to live the way you do. This is part of evolution. Because we are aware and we are part of nature, we must act as we see fit. And whatever we each decide, we are part of the evolving nature of our planet. But because we get to decide and other species do not, we must. It is part of our nature, the awareness, the choice, the action.

      Thank you.

      • Mary McAllister says:

        I have been debating with native plant advocates for over 15 years, so I am accustomed to the many creative arguments they offer in support of their ideology. But the suggestion that somehow nativism benefits poor people is new to me. And like most of the arguments they bring the argument, this seems ridiculous.

        Ecological “restoration” is now a multi-million dollar industry and most of the money being spent is public money—that is, your tax dollars. It doesn’t take much imagination to know that there are many worthy causes that go begging for tax dollars. Our educational system is woefully behind the rest of the developed world, as is our health care system. Education is the best—perhaps the only—way out of poverty. The poor can’t afford health care in roughly half of the states in America which are refusing to expand Medicaid to their poor. Because of the anomalies in the Affordable Care Act, these poor people aren’t eligible for federal subsidy of health insurance premiums so they are just left out in the cold.

        So, please retire that absurd argument, which can be paraphrased as, “Let them eat native plants!”

        • Hopefully, sometime in the NEXT fifteen years you’ll take time to understand what native plant advocates are actually saying instead of working so quickly to contradict them.

          I sincerely hope you can acknowledge that your lifestyle choices DO have an impact on other people in the world, and that you have a moral obligation to consider your impact on other people when you make decisions ABOUT those lifestyle choices.

          Because if you agree with that statement then you agree with what Astrid wrote earlier.

  13. Mary Gray says:

    The suffering of other human beings is a whole other conversation, Astrid. However, planting a wildlife friendly garden and buying a Prius isn’t going to improve the plight of poor people in China or our inner cities. I’m not saying there isn’t any link between the choices we make and the lives of others, but the causes of human suffering have more to do with culture — lack of education, corrupt governments, etc. — than with anything else. But certainly I agree that, as privileged Americans, we have a special responsibility to others.

    • Astrid Bowlby says:

      Dear Mary,

      I was responding directly to your own writing in the part which begins: “Am I supposed to wallow in guilt because I live in the suburbs with clean drinking water and electricity? That I have my nutritional needs met by food trucked in by vehicles that consume resources? That I live in a safe society with little fear of disease? All these comforts require displacement of other species.”

      I was just pointing out that all these comforts also displace and effect members of your own species. The issues are more complicated than “buying a Prius”. You are right. If you would like to further explore that impact of your consumption choices on yourself and others, I recommend three books:

      Our Ecological Footprint by Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees
      Radical Simplicity by Jim Merkel
      Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez

      I am not advocating that you take any of the steps suggested in any of these books. I am advocating that you become more aware of the hidden costs, as well as the benefits that you have pointed out, of what we freely choose to do. It is part of our evolution as the species that CAN comprehend consequences that we do just that. And then we make choices according to our knowledge and means and willingness one way or another. From these choices – these actions – our species will evolve accordingly.

      Regards,

      Astrid

  14. Well, the conversation’s real, and it needs to happen. Sometimes it’s worth it to tear down a maple forest to plant an oak forest for the next generation of wildlife. Sometimes, perhaps we should be thankful that we have a maple “forest” at all.

    I am strongly anti-invasive species in my work, but let’s be fair: with all the millions spent on invasive eradication, what’s the sum total of invasive species we’ve eradicated from the USA? That’d be ZERO.

    Pragmatism is needed from both sides – one very evident fault of the “new” approach is the view of some that if a site is green, then it’s “good enough” and should be a “preservation corridor.” Anyone who understands soil, water, and habitat dynamics knows it’s not that simple.

    Overall, a great start to a relatively new conversation.

    • kermit says:

      I know just enough to have the shadow of a hint of how complex the interactions of air, water, soil, and life are. (A recommendation: “Teaming with Microbes” by Lowenfels and Lewis) But our job can be made a little simpler – if sadder – by remembering that at this point we are performing triage. we are losing more than we can save. While scientists should not stop researching, sometime if something is green maybe could just go on to another, more desperate problem.

  15. Julie says:

    “Speaking of gardening, that’s how we create nature where we are, right? ”

    Interesting discussion that brings several points to mind. I am always amazed at the arrogance of the human species to think that we create, control, or manage “nature.” Rather we rearrange it, push and shove it around and discuss it as if it is out there while we are in here. (Wherever ‘here’ is.) Nature is the physical manifestation of the energy of the universe. And while I don’t really want to get off on a philosophical debate, I do think this is the crux of the problem. We–humans– see ourselves as the savior of a force of which we are a part, but understand very little of. If humans were wiped from the face of this planet tomorrow, the earth would thrive. Now I know that conservationism is all about repairing the mess we have made and I count myself in as one of this group. But rather than debate who is more correct, I see our job as far greater, and that is to impact the daily practices of every human on this earth. The bigger issue is not which camp of conservatism is more correct, but how do we ourselves have less of a destructive impact on a daily basis and how do we get our neighbors and friends, and just about everyone else we encounter on a daily basis more aware?

  16. Stephanie says:

    My yard is a mix of natives, and non-natives though I’m steadily switching out to mostly natives. There are so many different kinds, and my yard is generally very distinctive from neighbors–especially when you look at the life in my yard, and I get to support endangered plants. My neighbors’ landscapes are dominated by non-natives. Natives support far more herbivorous insects than non-natives do. That’s all I need to know. (Yes, I realize that some non-natives might feed a select butterfly’s caterpillar).

    One weird note in the interview seemed to be the definition of biodiversity–seemed to be limited the the kinds of trees in a given area. Biodiversity is about much more than plants.

    I feel like this conversation is a little muddied up about what professional ecologists/land managers/scientists should be doing in the protected areas and what we do in our yards. Two different things, and most of us are not qualified to speak about what’s happening in the natural areas. Those who say that we should just leave natural areas alone have not seen a forest devastated by garlic mustard, buckthorn, and honeysuckle. There need to be interventions.

    Sometimes, I wonder if we overstate our importance to “nature.” Yes we have changed it, but it has been for far longer than we, and will continue to exist after us.

    Another reason I’m sticking with native plants is that haven’t they been through climate change before? Multiple times? I am sure that ecosystems will change–trees that dominated a landscape will be succeeded by others. Succession happens.

    • kermit says:

      Natives have been through climate change before. But the ice ages that the world has cycled through over the last hundred thousand years have been about 4°C colder than recently. We’re entering a time when we will be 4° warmer, perhaps even twice that. It has been millions of years since Earth has gone thorough that, and the living species cannot realistically be considered to have experienced that. there may be times when a non-native will be better suited for the circumstances.

      The odds are a native will be better unless we truly know otherwise. But if it ain’t broke, I’d say, don’t fix it. If a non-native forest is established, there are surely other areas which are in dire need of restoration or the establishment of a new but healthy state.

      • Stephanie says:

        My 2cents about the temp change–wouldn’t the natural areas figure it out? I guess to me it would make sense to look at what species are thriving in natural tracts of land. New species and sub-species should be allowed to develop. Let’s not force things into a system since we have no idea about what can happen with such abrupt shifts.

        The paradigm that is being suggested seems the opposite of good sense: we are being told to bring our landscaping practices of planting whatever will grow and whatever we like in our natural areas. Look at what has happened there.

        What seems more reasonable is that we extend what’s in the natural areas into our domesticated landscapes.

        I think we need to enter this whole era very carefully–instead of just throwing caution to the wind and planting more and more non-natives just because we have a very tenuous rationale to me is very short-sighted. In my area, Norway Maples and Ginkos grow great, but they support very little life. Good bye butterflies, pollinators, migrating birds, etc. What a bereft and sad world. But hey, at least people have the trees that THEY want.

        Time to decenter ourselves and think about the needs of the greater environment and all of the other animals who have lost their habitat.

        Please remember that we need the bottom of the food chain–those insects that eat plants are a very important of the ecosystem. 90% of the plant eating insects depend on native plants–they won’t eat anything else, and you can’t force them to evolve and eat whatever. Many people do not understand this fundamental concept. And when this is not discussed, and people are advocating for creating “novel” ecosystems, it is so irresponsible. You talk to any scientist who studies birds, bees, butterflies, other animals, and they discuss in short order, the need for food plants.

        If we don’t have these insects, it will get very ugly very quick. Most of the ecosystem services we depend on stem from those very misunderstood and very under-appreciated animals.

        Lots of different kinds of natives, along with some very carefully chosen and well-understood non-natives seems to be the prudent way to go.

      • skr says:

        Natives have been through climate change. So have the exotics. The climate of the earth has changed. Any species that has existed during those changes have experienced climate change. Whether they are native or exotic to an arbitrary point on a map is irrelevant to their ability to change to novel climactic changes. What does matter are the conditions to which the plant is adapted regardless of geographic provenance.

  17. kermit says:

    The problem with nature figuring it out this time is – this is happening at a much, much faster rate than any previous change since the asteroid that killed the (non-bird) dinosaurs. The world was vastly simplified after that, and many species went extinct. It took about ten million years to restore a comparable diversity. I’m not saying to try for novel ecosystems for the heck of it.

    I guess I’m saying: The house is on fire, and some folks just want to discuss historical restorations. Nope; it’s time to hit the fire alarm, grab the kids, and run.

    I don’t mean to be a downer. I don’t normally talk like this in real life. But discussions of native-only recovery misses the point. You mention trees that don’t support all the necessary insects. Well, bees are dying. now, in large numbers Not just imported honey bees, but native carpenter bees and other pollinators. That’s mostly form use of nicotinoids, but other factors are at work. Bats are dying, all the species of starfish off the California coast are disintegrating, vast swaths of mountainsides in the American west are brown (dead trees) or black (dead trees burned). The western forests have died because they are stressed by drought; the hotter, therefore longer summers are allowing the bark beetles to reproduce twice in one summer instead of just once; and the weakened trees cannot fight back.

    By all means we should not have the nearest suburban developer landscape our forests. But do not turn down information or reject a possible solution out of hand simply because it fails a philosophical or aesthetic test. We will have to make decisions based on too little data, with too few resources, insufficient money, and a population who are mostly concerned with other things. Native is certainly a good default choice.

  18. Stephanie says:

    Kermit–I totally agree with you, but I guess I just hope that when species are selected it’s for thinking about an entire ecosystem, and I just don’t know how any human being can know what is going to work in a given system.

    To go to the trees–the non-native trees I mentioned don’t flower or provide nectar for bees. Granted, some non-natives can provide that too. Native pollinators are also in trouble, and that is in part because of loss of habitat/ farming/gardening practices/and pesticides and diseases too.

    I don’t think I was talking about not meeting an aesthetic or philosophical test–more of a biological/ecological one. I just think the conversation gets stunted when we are only talking about what will grow and thrive in a given area but no one thinks about the life it supports. Sure it might give cover or bear fruit, but does it feed a diversity of insects that need plants?

    If they plant one kind of tree that can take the drought, how can they every account for disastrous unintended consequences? Then in the next several years there is to much rain for what was planted to take the drought. It doesn’t sound like we are going to get much of stable weather patterns, so that will make planning so hard.

    It’s an interesting time to be an ecologist, that’s for sure.

    So there may be years of drought, then tremendous amounts of rain, and temperatures that vary like never before, then winds are different. How can we know what plants will work there? What animal species are going to survive? How to make sure their needs are met?

    To me, if we were to make our yards part of a larger ecosystem, that would create more resilience. And it’s not just what we plant too, but how we treat our yards; how we do spring/fall clean-up, etc.

  19. Pam J. says:

    Anyone a fan of Paul Kingsnorth?
    http://www.paulkingsnorth.net/dm
    As he says, his message isn’t “cheery” but it is honest. And it makes sense to me.
    “We tried ruling the world; we tried acting as God’s steward, then we tried ushering in the human revolution, the age of reason and isolation. We failed in all of it, and our failure destroyed more than we were even aware of. The time for civilisation is past. Uncivilisation, which knows its flaws because it has participated in them; which sees unflinchingly and bites down hard as it records — this is the project we must embark on now. This is the challenge for writing — for art — to meet. This is what we are here for.”

  20. Mario Martin says:

    I live in the argentinian pampas and I think is a case in point.. The original one was a treeless grassland that was populated by a few nomadic tribes of native people and – since the Spanish Conquest five hundred years ago – by horses and cattle that runned away from the small settlements and multiplied by the millions. At the end of the XIX century, with the arrival of the inmigrants and the use of land at large scale, eucalyptus and other trees were planted in the homsteads as wind breakers, and became part of the system very easily. In recent times at the sierras district hugue woodlands were created and became the natural home of hundred species of birds and mammals. Today is difficult to find an original plot of the “original” pampas, but let me tell you, with exotic plants and trees and everything and the soil as rich as ever, it is full of life.

    • Susan Harris Susan Harris says:

      How interesting! And thanks for commenting. We mostly gaze at our own navels rather than look for input from other parts of the world.
      Come back and comment again any time.

      • Mario Martin says:

        Hello, Susan. I just discovered this blog and if I can contribute some comments I will. Excuse my English but as you may have noticed is not my native language.

        • Susan Harris says:

          Your written English is a lot better than that of many native English-speakers, sorry to say. At least you have a good excuse for any errors. And I had no trouble getting your point in any event.

          Keep on commenting!

    • Mary McAllister says:

      Thank you, Mario, for joining this conversation. We have been to Argentina and have witnessed what you describe. And we see much the same role being played by eucalyptus trees here in California, where there were few trees before they were planted by early settlers. Now they are an established feature in the landscape with a thriving community of wildlife. Unfortunately, they are being eradicated by native plant advocates who heap blame on them without any evidence that the eucalypts are doing any harm to man or beast.

      There is a wonderful article in today’s New York Times that you might enjoy reading. In this case, it is the story of another maligned non-native tree, Tamarisk. The media and many scientists are coming to its defense and the concluding sentences report that Tamarisk is being scapegoated for the changes made in the environment by humans. Oh, so much easier to blame a plant or animal that is unable to defend itself in the debate. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/15/us/arizona-water-tamarisk-beetle.html?ref=todayspaper&_r=0

      BTW, one of the highlights of our trip to Argentina was seeing pampas grass “where it belongs.” It was a pleasure to see it growing where it is not hated by native plant advocates.

      • Mario Martin says:

        Hi Mary. I’m glad that you were able to visit Argentina and see this part of the world. I myself had the good fortune to travel across California, Nevada and Arizona and I´m aware of the water issue mentioned in the NYT article. The farmers concern is understandable but we know much to well that fundamentalist solutions are not solutions at all. Let´s hope everybody comes to their senses and stop “solving problems” in a nonsensical way.

        • Mary McAllister says:

          Gracias, Mario. That is very well said. I’m glad to hear we have a friend of “exotic” plants in Argentina. I hope you felt at home in California, as we did in Argentina.

  21. Fantastic! Can’t wait to read the book and enter more deeply into this discussion.

  22. emily says:

    Totally awesome article, video and perspective. This just makes so much sense. So often we are effectively imprisoned by our concept of a past that never really existed. I am totally for conservation but we need to be realistic and smart about what we do.

  23. I heard a nice interview with Emma Marris on “To The Best of Our Knowledge” (radio program) this morning, thought your readers may be interested in listening in:

    http://www.ttbook.org/book/rethinking-nature

    It piqued my interest because I’ve had her book for a couple of years now, and the interview reminded me that it’s still on my bookstand with several pages dog-eared.

  24. david mcmullin says:

    I am now reading Emma Marris’ book and find it to be refreshing and in line with my more recent observations about the state of “nature”. It seems to me that ecology, as a field of study, is evolving past its puritanical beginnings. I think that shows human’s ability to respond creatively to common problems and is encouraging to me.
    “Nature” is a concept more than anything else, and we have little ability to comprehend natural systems let alone devise one schema for healing all of the earth.
    But I am also cautioning that this conversation isn’t about garden. Its about environment. Those are different concerns.

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