Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Nature in the Future Will Look More Like a Garden


Fifteen years ago I went on this amazing hike through a Hemlock forest in the Shenandoah National Park.  Hemlock groves have a wonderful Gothic quality: dark, angular spires of the trunks are contrasted with the intricate tracery of the needles on bended branch.  Ten years later, I convinced my wife to go with me to re-create the experience.  This time, however, all of the Hemlocks were gone—victim to the wooly adelgid.  Brambles and vines stood in the sunny areas where there were once dark groves.  

Hemlock Forests have been decimated by the wooly adelgid

It is hard for me to talk about my love of native plants without thinking about loss.  The scale of the loss is well documented.  The natural spaces that remain are often riddled with invasive species.  Emma Marris' excellent book, Rambunctious Gardens, makes this point quite powerfully.  In 2013 there is almost no pristine wilderness left on the planet.  We have disturbed it all. 

photo by Ernst Schutte
Yet despite this loss, I am an optimist.  I am an optimist because I believe--as Marris points out--that nature is everywhere.  It is the Paulowinia that forces its way through the crack in the city alley; it is the praying mantis in my garden, it is the Burmese pythons in the Everglades, and it is the pockets of rare native orchids in the farmer’s ditch.  Nature is everywhere.  But it is not nature as we once knew it.  It is our nature, our garden, influenced by us.

The problem is that we want nature to be pristine.  The landscape architect Martha Schwartz said that “Americans treat nature like Victorians treated women: as virgins or whores.”  For us, if nature (OUT THERE) is not some pristine wilderness, then it’s not nature.  To focus exclusively on the preserving the last of our “virgin” or “old growth” woods is to lose site of the larger issue right under our noses: the spaces that surround us every day.

This realization was quite empowering to me as a designer.  I recently worked on a master plan for a large-scale ecological restoration. The goal was to use the development of a several thousand acre site to re-create a mosaic of ecosystems that we believed were likely once on the site.  Our plans called for the eradication of invasive species by cutting them down, treating them with herbicides, and planting native species.  After this, the site would have to be weeded for years on end to make sure the invasives were kept in check.  Parts of the site would require managing through mowing or burning.  The more I thought about this process, with all its weeding, mowing, and planting, the more it felt like gardening to me.  And any gardener knows that the process of gardening never ends.  

So my first realization is that pristine nature does not really exist OUT there.  My second realization is that pristine nature cannot really exist apart from massive amounts of tending on our part.  

Tending, yes, this is something I know about.  I've spent my professional life designing artificial landscapes for people, and then trying to teach them how to tend it.  It’s not a perfect process, but it is a process that can be replicated on all sorts of sites.  Maintenance matters, but smart design matters more.  

I believe in design.  Today is Inauguration day, and despite the goodwill I still have for our elected leaders, I do not count on much.  Now is not the era of the politician.  No, now is the era of the designer.  Design focuses on resolving conflicts by looking at all angles and finding feasible solutions.

Designer ecologies. Deschampsia and Leucanthemum.  Photo and design by Nigel Dunnett for the London Olympic stadium
One example of the kind of smart design I am optimistic about is the work of British landscape architects James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett.  Their work is aimed at studying naturalistic herbaceous vegetation for use in urban landscapes and parks.  They use a palette of “semi-natural” plant communities (both native and exotic species) to create visually dramatic ornamental plantings.  I featured a post on their stylized meadows at the London Olympics.  What is most exciting is that their work focuses on creating low cost, low maintenance management strategies such as mowing or burning.  Their projects are not simply ecological restoration, but also beautiful, ornamental plantings.  Without beauty, they write, there would be little public acceptance for the ecology.  Their work is one part garden design, one part ecological restoration, and one part community development.  For me, it represents the best of the future: designed ecologies that feed our souls as much as it feeds the butterflies. 

Future Nature: Entrance Garden at Morton Arboretum
The front lines of the battle for nature are not the Amazon rain forest or the Alaskan wilderness; the front lines are our backyards, medians, parking lots, and elementary schools. The ecological warriors of the future won’t just be scientists, engineers, or even landscape architects.  The ecological warriors of the future will be gardeners, horticulturists, land managers, Department of Transportation staff, elementary school teachers, and community association board members.  Anyone who can influence a small patch of land has the ability to create more nature.  And the future nature will look more and more like a garden.  

36 comments:

  1. Thomas, this is an exciting post. It points the way forward in a nature that we increasingly recognize is in constant change--in many cases a nature we don't even recognize as nature because it's not "out there"--not only through climate warming but through all kinds of human-induced physical and cultural changes, as well as natural large-scale cycles of the earth such as periods of glaciation and warming. This subject is dealt with extensively in Rambunctious Garden, an important new book by Emma Marris. Judging from your post, you've probably read it. Or maybe you haven't. I'd like to think what you're saying is "in the air" and being thought by others who can make a difference in the gardened world of the future.

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    1. Hi James. Yes, I have read that book and in my late night haste writing and posting this, I neglected to credit Marris for her contribution to this subject. I added it this morning.

      I have come through a long process of mourning the loss of wild spaces, clutching desperately to the idea that natives needed to be planted to replace what is lost. I still believe that, to a certain extent, but I've adopted a more optimistic view about what can be done. Gardeners and designers certainly can't re-create what thousands of years of evolution to a site does; but we can take the sterile wastelands that surround us and inject them with more diversity. That part is relatively easy.

      I love the tradition of "naturalistic" planting design. Embracing the artifice of it is actually quite liberating.

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  2. You do a such great job of articulating this new reality of Nature. My big ah-ha moment came when I read William Cronon's "The End of Wilderness" and after that my perspective about nature was never the same. I have heard of the Emma Marris book that James mentioned and I look forward to reading that also.

    I think the key word in your article is "optimism"...the structure of your article is a great example of the kind of optimism we need: instead of pining away (ha ha) about the dead hemlocks, you moved on and pointed out that there is potential all around us, right here in the cities and suburbs, and discussed some of the great work that is being done by others. Inspiring. Thank you!

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    1. Have not read Cronon's book, though I'll add it to my reading list now. Yes, check out some of Hitchmough and Dunnett's work. It's very exciting to me, particularly as most of my clients these days are in the public sector.

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  3. My big "ahha" came with Bill McKibben's End of Nature, and extended into the works above. Out here in Nebraska it's all about prairie restoration -- and yes, that's gardening on one heckuva massive scale, with lots of burning and grazing and cutting (and what I hope to begin in a few years). Your point about the fight being in our home landscapes and not in DC is spot on -- anything viable and important and massive has and must always be grass roots or bluestem roots. Now, can we all convince my wife to let me rip out the front lawn and put in a short grass prairie? She's very resistant, but I want to send a message to the guy across the street who mows three times a week and waters every morning.

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    1. Ha! Your front yard plans remind me of a quote I recently heard Dan Benarcik (of Chanticleer fame) recently say: "horticultural exuberance is the new civil disobedience." More power to you, brother.

      The prairie might be your local native community, but it's great to see how captivated many European landscape architects are with the American prairie. American prairie plants--and "look"--are all the rage in Europe. Just so you know: you are probably much cooler than all your neighbors realize.

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  4. Quite an exciting post! As mentioned above me, the optimism is key. Yet, as you also said, I mourn the loss of our great wild spaces. As an urban planner, I see great value in this concept. As an environmentalist, however, I don't want to ignore the old and wild forests, and I want to preserve them....How Victorian of me!? Acknowledging that such "pure" spaces no longer exists has made it much easier to, shall I say, cope. I will always have that urge to protect the forests, yet what good will that do if I cannot also enjoy them? And what good is protecting the forest if it must be maintained as a space for human enjoyment- National Parks are terrific, but they almost have a theme-park feel to them. A balance is necessary. Coming to terms with this is quite difficult, as you've expressed well in your post. Thank you for addressing this idea, and encouraging me to think more critically about the subject!

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    1. I mourn, too. And I certainly wasn't advocating for turning our backs on our last (semi) wild spaces. There's still a valuable role for conservation and preservation. In fact, we should probably double down on those efforts.

      I love your blog, by the way. I signed up and followed you on Twitter. Looking forward to reading more!

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  5. Thomas - I love your blog. Insightful, interesting and often challenging. I especially enjoyed this post.

    I struggle with this topic in my head on a regular basis (boring, huh!). I used to be very much about protecting wild areas, restoring native bushland to how it 'used' to be but have since realised that doing this is the same, in a way, as not doing anything at all. It is still humans changing an environment, one way or the other.

    I am still fleshing out my ideas on this topic, and I suspect I will be for a long while yet! Recently, however, I have been thinking about the word 'respect' in relation to nature. I have a feeling that if we encourage people to respect plants, landscape and our surrounding environment, to see it not as something to be conquered but something of importance and value, we may be able to readjust the balance of power in the culture - nature marriage. I think sometimes we forget just how much we need Ms Nature, how we couldn't live without her, we need her yet we forget to love her...

    Anyway, enough rambling! Like you, I am filled with much optimism about the future of our relationship with nature. I feel like we are on the path to something akin to respect, and if so this could lead to a number of positive outcomes including the retention and protection of wilderness (I'm not ready to let go entirely yet!), a higher value given to public green spaces, and most importantly, more people growing plants, seeing their beauty and understanding their extremely important contribution to our existance.

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    1. Georgina,

      Thanks for the kind comments. If you only knew the boring topics that were rolling around in my head . . .

      Your meditation is lovely. I completely agree. 'Respect' is a great word. It puts this topic into the context of a relationship. That's exactly where it needs to be.

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  6. One could argue that the very act of gardening is removing the human induced changes of the landscape. Maybe it doesn't make it pristine but they very act of gardening out the negative changes that man is responsible for, we are creating a new kind of cohabitation with the land between "virgin and whore." Great article!!

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    1. That's interesting, Matt. 'Gardening' to me introduces the human, but perhaps it can also erase as well? It changes the way I've thought of gardening, but since we are talking about these hybrid nature/garden zones in human dominated landscapes, perhaps your point is more accurate.

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  7. Control burning as a means of garden maintenance is a step backwards not forwards.

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    1. Ooh, I don't know. Have you seen landscapes emerge fresh in spring after a burn? Can be pretty fabulous.

      Burning only makes sense for very specific landscapes--not ornamental gardens. But if burning is a means that a budget-dry public agency can have a gorgeous meadow instead of lawn or invasive-riddled weed lots, then I'm not sure it's really a step backwards.

      What's more 'deviant' than fire?

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  8. Unfortunately, public aesthetic sensibilities do not always allow for a great deal of biodiversity. Swaths of uniformity, as in the still-preferred turf patches, are more easily accepted than mixed meadows containing more than a few species...no matter how beautiful. In Toronto, Ontario, the local government has even segregated "natural gardens" in several bylaws from more acceptably uniform plantings with some departments (eg.Parks) encouraging them while others (bylaw enforcement) working hard to stamp out individual plots of subversive native plant gardens...mine included.

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    1. Deborah,

      Nothing makes my blood boil like municipalities cracking down on gardens because they don't fit into some kind of community ordinance. It's the worst kind of bureaucratic narrow mindedness. Keep up the good fight!

      The work of Hitchmough and Dunnett tries to address the issue of public aesthetic sensibilities. They use 'pictorial meadows' that rely on thousands of annual wildflowers that make the more sustainable plantings they do more palatable to the general public. THAT to me is the future. Native plant advocates and nature-lovers need to return to ornamental horticulture to learn how to create hybrids between naturalistic and ornamental plantings. If we can do that, we can make a sensible alternative to these narrow minded bureaucratic restrictions.

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  9. Did you really mean a "war on nature" in the last paragraph, or did you mean the battle FOR nature?

    I am not sure any gardener thinks of that they are in a war on nature -- although admittedly you do hear people say they are battling weeds all the time. And we argue among ourselves as gardeners all the time about the ecological impacts of various weed removal techniques (how organic is organic? how damaging is it to use chemicals to remove invasives, etc.) But war *on* nature? I think many environmental groups see themselves as being in a war *for* the good of nature. Not upon it. Maybe it was just a typo, but actually it really brings up something interesting to ponder. It is no different in tone, sometimes, than religious disagreements. I have been in meetings where it felt as if people were battling for the good of nature's soul, or the souls of our backyards. And a LOT of lectures sound like preaching. Which can be either inspiring or tiresome, depending on whether or not one agrees or disagrees with the speaker. But there's definitely a spiritual aspect to many parts of the whole gardening world right now for many participants/gardeners.

    This is the first time I've read a post by you. Thanks for the thought provoking words.

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    1. Yes, I agree. Your wording is more accurate to what I meant. Not a war on nature, but the battle for. Thanks for that clarification.

      Great blog by the way. It's great to connect with another local advocate!

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  10. I think we need also to be careful about what is really 'wilderness' and what is an illusion of wilderness. I remember marvelling at the thick forests of NE USA only to see an early photograph of the same countryside, completely cleared of trees by the mid 19th century. Is that regrowth really 'wilderness'?
    We have similar issues here in Australia - we prize our huge eucalypt forests as wilderness & fight to preserve them, & yet many paintings from the colony's early days show a completely different open woodland landscape, cleared by regular Aboriginal burning. We tend to romanticise thick, impenetrable growth as wilderness, and think everything else is from human (mis)management.
    So many soils have now been ploughed, 'improved' & generally made unsuitable for a lot of endemic vegetation & so many imported pests have decimated local species, that sensible combinations & compromises with indigenous, cultivar & exotics plants are the only truly sustainable conclusion. But I would mourn those great, dark, hemlocks too.

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    1. Great point. Here in the states, some of the most revered and iconic ecosystems (American prairie, long-leaf pine savanna, piedmont prairie, grassy balds) were likely created by native Americans burning to improve navigation and hunting.

      Or here in the east coast, a relatively recent study concluded that our concept of a natural stream (a winding line of water moving in a channel) is actually a pretty anthropogenic concept, a remnant of hundreds of old mill dams built in the 17th century. Actual streams in the piedmont were more like swamps than streams--big muddy seeps that stretched over a forest floor.

      Wilderness is indeed a slippery concept.

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  11. How wonderful to have someone come out and say it - there are such myths about the "natural". Our "traditional British countryside" is a case in point - the lovely rolling hills and stone walls of the Dales or Wales are the product of Man interacting with and shaping the environment. I remember standing on the top of a mountain in Scotland some years ago and looking out over the wonderful rolling landscape, and pondering the fact that a couple of hundred years ago the sides of those mountains would have been covered in thick pine forest - all cleared, to allow sheep to graze. Now we campaign to keep the countryside the way it is - and while I am all in favour of re-introducing hedges and cutting down on the mowing of road verges to encourage more wildlife, and love the work that Nigel and others are doing because it might help the pollinators we so desperately need while not costing the councils that have to fund it more, we really need to be clearer about what we mean when we talk about "preserving our wild spaces". Which version of them? How many of the species that have made their way in to our landscape over the centuries have now earned the right to be thought of as natives, and how may should be destroyed as evil invaders?

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    1. Yes! Great points.

      I think the fact that the very concept of "wilderness" or "baseline ecosystem" is slippery is not a bad thing; the complexity adds to the richness of this conversation. The dialogue should be elevated.

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  12. Thank you for including the issue of garden maintenance. Whether the garden is made up of exotic ornamentals or naturally occurring species (or both!), the landscape must be managed so that the garden designer's vision is reveled.

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    1. Hey Alex!

      Over time, maintenance is design and design is maintenance, right? When you look at a garden or landscape and stretch it over a few decades, the line between maintenance and design only blurs.

      Your point of view on maintenance is a great one, and one that should be more a part of the conversation.

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  13. Thanks for this wonderful post. So many thought-points to research further.

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  15. Such a prescient post...all the more so by our call to care. And a great follow-up to the New Romanticism post. Good design recognizes time and change, and gardening the design is all about the art of care. We are post Industrialism and our science has long since moved from Baconian division of man vs. nature, subduer vs. subdued, pristine wild vs. place for mankind. I'm not sure, though that our sentimentality has entirely made the transition. Interpreting and introducing nature to our urban, suburban, and rural gardening is the path toward caring for and interacting with the environment that is.

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  16. I too touched on these ideas a while back when pointing out that what so many perceive as the wilderness of the West, the great national parks and national forests, are heavily managed and edited, and very expensively contrived and maintained as 'nature.' This was in response to my local government's direction that I maintain my property as 'natural,' with the warning that the City did not want to "see a landscape" in my backyard...it begs the question, how can I emulate nature, without creating a landscape? When visitors first look out onto what amounts to my backyard, most if not all have asked, 'so, do you have any plans for your yard?' This is at once comical and complimentary, as I have created a landscape that is difficult to see (at least to the non-gardener's eye). Those romantic painters conveniently left the railroads and mills of the Hudson Valley out of their art, Yellowstone is roads and vast parking lots on top of an attractively landscaped volcano, and the naturalists of the early 1800's catalogued the weeds and invasives left behind by their immediate predecessors here in the Pacific NW. Nature has looked like a garden for quite a while...but you are absolutely correct that if we want nature, we are going to have to continue to garden it. She can't fend for herself without the gardener's help.

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  17. One of the many challenges of living in an industrial and technologically biased world is that we, the ecological warriors, often go to battle in an army of one. In the same spirit as "He who saves one life, saves the world", those of us who plant and tend one garden, may save the planet.

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  19. Beautiful gardens have for centuries been an important part of landscape design. For your own landscape, you can make a garden that will delight the senses and add value to your home.

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  20. we really enjoyed your article, thanks for sharing and more power!

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  21. thanks for share.

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  22. I have an eye for these flowering plants and leaves; they seem to be the best choice for landscape and gardens.

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  23. If this is going to happen in the future, well I can't wait for it to come..

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