Gardening is an ancient craft but Mary Reynolds, a “reformed” internationally acclaimed landscape designer, hopes to propel a paradigm shift in how we approach the care and tending of our plots. Reynolds’ new book, We Are the ARK, Returning Our Gardens to Their True Nature Through Acts of Restorative Kindness, (Timber Press, 2022) is informative, inspirational, and above all a challenging read.
As a lifelong gardener who has spent her days in retail horticulture and garden writing, I initially chafed at the author’s call to say goodbye to the way we’ve gardened for generations. “We need to start considering that gardens are part of an old world and to adopt a new vision for our future,” Reynolds writes in the book’s preface. “Looking at gardens as artistic endeavors or feasts for our senses is outmoded.”
Ouch! Still, I pressed on to see where the author was going with this horticultural apostasy. Afterall, everyone deserves the opportunity to be heard.
Coming from an elevated position within the world of design, Reynolds was the youngest woman in history to win a gold medal for garden design at the Chelsea flower show in 2002, the author turned from building gardens to restoring the land. This profound shift from “gardener to guardian” is the foundation of an international grassroots movement Reynolds began called We Are the ARK.
ARK = Act of Restorative Kindness to the earth.
The rooted & the unrooted
We Are the ARK is grounded in raising awareness about the collapse of the planet’s biodiversity, the biological diversity of all living things and the natural systems that connect them. Drawing on science, Reynolds correlates the rapidly increasing decline of the planet’s plants, animals, and microorganisms, “the rooted and the unrooted,” with the rise of industrial farming, forestry, and fishing — damaging human initiatives that call for human intervention and remediation. “Our relationship with nature must change,” she writes.
“Our relationship with nature must change” — Mary Reynolds
We Are the ARK is both an inspirational song of praise for the natural world and an informative guide with actionable steps each of us can take to return our plots to what Reynolds calls “habitat and pantry” in support of pollinators and wildlife. Chapter by chapter Reynolds outlines ways to think like an “ARKivist” and foster landscapes that support life in all its forms. “You can still design pathways, dining areas, nighttime spaces, lawns and patios, and food-growing areas,” she assures. “It just means you approach it all differently, embracing nature as a partner in the process.”
In the landscape, an ARK is intentional. It isn’t a neglected space but one that’s cultivated from a different perspective. It’s a space where nature is nurtured and supported, an environment that invites birds and butterflies and wildlife. This may look like including more native plantings, creating a log pile to provide insect habitat, leaving leaves beneath your trees and shrubs, or introducing a pond.
There will be weeds
“Weeds are the foundation of an ecosystem reboot,” Reynolds writes. She ascribes an environmental intelligence and purpose to their (seeming) omnipresence and persistence, an asset for pollinators and critical to protecting soil. There’s more: homegrown meadows, periodically working the soil in a way that mimics the disturbance of large mammals, and how changing the bulbs in your outdoor lighting lessens the effect on nighttime insects.
Like I said previously, We Are the ARK is a challenging read, as I believe the author intended, but it’s written with heart and filled with hope. Whimsical illustrations by Ruth Evans provide a spoonful of sugar to the book’s strong medicine. When I finally put aside my garden defenses and read with curiosity and imagination I begin to open to the possibilities and opportunities of tending in new ways. It felt like a homecoming.
(an earlier version of this book review appeared in The Seattle Times GROW column)