This book came to my notice through a rather impressive little chain. Piet Oudolf recommended it to me, after Rick Darke had recommended it to him. I’d like to use it today to develop a train of thought that first came to me years ago. It’s also very relevant to my last blog posting here about native and exotic plants, and in a way continues the discussion.
Written by a science writer (Emma Marris) – ‘Rambunctious Garden’ tackles the fact that there is virtually no ‘untouched nature’ left on the planet, and that an awful lot of what we call nature is heavily managed by humanity or was trashed by our ancestors, often a very long time ago or is the result of non-native species setting out and creating entirely novel ecosystems. Marris discusses how many of these new ecosystems actually function very well, and not always in competition with natives, and there is much here to counter the more lurid fantasies of the ‘natives only’ lobby, as well as to highlight just how much, and for how long, the human race has been changing life on earth. Well-written, firmly evidence-based, level-headed, open-minded and packed with intriguing examples, the author paints a picture of a rapidly-changing ‘natural’ world which she describes as a ‘rambunctious garden’. She does not take the garden analogy any further, so I will here.
Some time ago I wrote an essay for a book a colleague and I co-edited – Vista: The Culture and Politics of the Garden in which I ended up suggesting that we care for the earth as we garden. I’d like to suggest that ‘our kind of garden’, the sort of garden that GGW readers probably either have or aim at, is a good model for a human-dominated earth. I am pretty sure that most GGW gardens will contain the following:
- a lawn (but not one that the perfect lawn brigade would own up to!)
- wide borders and associated hedges and shrubs with a wide variety of plant life, possibly not too tidy
- a pond
- a vegetable garden
- a wild patch, out of sight, largely left alone.
I’d propose that these areas might provide us with some good analogies for the earth.
Lawn and border and pond are basically there for our ‘amenity – our use and pleasure, but they can also serve a very wide variety of wildlife as well, depending on the species used. They can be an analogy for gardens, parks, public spaces. Of course most of these spaces in our towns and cities are planted in a very sterile way, but the whole thrust of the ecological landscaping and naturalistic gardening movement is to show alternatives that support biodiversity. We can do it, and very slowly, I believe we are.
The veg patch is clearly an analogy for agriculture. Now this requires a bit more discussion. I can’t remember off-hand how much of the earth’s surface is given over to farming (Marris will tell you) but it is a lot, and much of it is farmed very intensively, which people tend to complain about. There are an awful lot of people on this earth, and many of them have eating habits that swallow a lot of resources (I’m staring very directly now at folks who eat a lot of beef), so don’t go blaming the usual suspects: farmers, agricultural corporations, the food industry. So, what is the alternative to intensive agriculture (i.e. in our analogy a weed-free, pest-free, tidy and highly-productive veg patch)? Not-intensive agriculture, such as traditional farming (very often very inefficient in its use of land) or organic farming (ditto). Imagine that if you actually had to live off your veg patch, instead of just enjoying growing your own and patting yourself on the back that you have made the world a better place. You can either get the same amount of produce by plowing up the rest of the garden (goodbye: lawn, flowery borders, pond, wild bit) or make damn sure that the veg patch produces, well …. lots of veg. I am glad to see that the author of Rambunctious Garden is one of the few people to actually tackle what the organic lobby never face up to – how low yield farming can drive environmental destruction. She does some interesting sums which probably aren’t right but full marks to her for starting the debate. Long may it continue!
The wild patch can be seen as an analogy for nature reserves and national parks. Now, notice how it is very often, unless someone is a really committed wild gardener, the left-over bit? The bit you can’t do anything else with? Just like so many of our rural landscapes – where farmers have taken the best land and wildlife/nature etc gets the bits (mountains, deserts, steep slopes etc) that can’t support food production. So, we don’t get to see much tallgrass prairie, but we do have a lot of semi-desert sagebrush (UK readers can substitute lowland wildflower meadow and moorland here). Again, how much wild space gets left is a political decision, both on the garden scale and the national.
OK. I’ve driven my little analogy as far as I can. Any examples? I’d like to suggest a quick trip to The Netherlands. Intensively managed; if it wasn’t for the Dutch a lot of the country would have gone the way of the rest of the North Sea (dry land during and immediately after the last Ice Age), a lot of it is incredibly intensive agriculture, but the Dutch have been recreating wild habitats for longer and more thoroughly than anyone else, so there is a kind of a balance, which in a densely populated country is inspiring. One of the places that Marris writes about in Rambunctious Garden is Oostvaadersplassen near Amsterdam, a newly-created nature reserve with herds of wild cattle, as near to the original pre-human landscape as it is possible to get in western Europe. She writes about it as a example of ‘re-wilding’, and goes on to discuss similar places which could be developed or are being developed in the US, using African wildlife to replace all the animals the ancestors of the Indians wiped out 20,000 years ago.
Before I sign off I’ll mention one other Dutch place, which got going as long ago as the 1930s, the suburb of Amstelveen, where nature is integrated into the fabric of an urban community, with parks, green tramlines, wild vegetation on roadside etc. Nature is seen as absolutely integral to the city, not just an add-on.
? I really recommend this book – its a very useful start to a constructive debate about how we garden the planet. And I would also suggest that we look at how we manage our own gardens as a metaphor for how we manage our wider world.
AND, I’d like to flag up that later this year I’ll be launching a completely new form of garden media. It’ll be fun, unique and totally un-put-downable! Watch this space!