Monday, January 28, 2013

Beyond 'nature as virgin – garden as whore'.

Nature in the city has gotta look pretty. The New York High Line


In a recent, and well-argued post, fellow blogger Thomas Rainer quotes landscape architect Martha Schwartz as saying that “Americans treat nature like Victorians treated women: as virgins or whores”.

I know what she means: landscapes are either wild or they are not, and not-wild-landscapes in the US tend to be treated in a way which is almost abusive – the sadistically-mown grass and cruelly-clipped evergreens. Thomas though is interested in the nature side of the quotation – that “if nature (OUT THERE) is not some pristine wilderness, then it’s not nature”. As he points out there is very little pristine nature left.

All this is part of a discussion about a very thought-provoking book (Rambunctious Nature by scince writer Emma Marris) which I raised in a blog last year. I'd like to carry on the conversation.

Thomas announces that “now is the era of the designer”, that landscape designers will have an increasingly important role in designing nature, that “(t)he 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.”

Too right. Which raises all sorts of questions about “what is nature?”, “what is a garden?”.

They are liking it wild at last! - changing public perceptions of what a garden is
Increasingly people are appreciating gardens and public plantings that are far wilder than anything that would have been acceptable in the past. The New York High Line is probably the best example of that. Nature in the city is now seen as not just ok but highly desirable. At least in the industrialised world (it'll take a while to catch on in China!). Managing nature in the city involves habitat creation and management which is a kind of gardening. This is not actually that new – the Dutch have been doing this since the 1930s in the parks of Amstelveen.

Recently, on a trip to South America, I saw what garden designer Amalia Robredo was doing with her land in Uruguay. A lot of her 'gardening' is actually land management – deciding what to cut, when to cut it, on the basis of aesthetic decisions (to encourage spring or summer flowers for example) or functional (such as short-grass around seating areas to discourage snakes). Increasingly this land management will be seen as part and parcel of normal garden practice. Part of the reason for this is that more and more of us are gardening places which used to be farmland, but which is now uneconomic to farm; Amalia's land used to be rangeland, my own here in the Welsh borders used to be sheep pasture, and before that, arable crops.

BUT - people like their nature stylised
Especially in urban areas. Hence the incredible success of the Dunnett and Hitchmough Olympic Park plantings in London  and of course the High Line. There is nothing wrong with this, so long as people realise that this is 'enhanced nature' or 'stylised nature' and not the real thing. Given how difficult it is to actually see the 'real thing', it is probably more important for us all to realise that what we are looking at may be a fantastic wildlife habitat, but that there are a whole lot of species (mammal, bird, primarily) which will not choose to live here, because they need bigger territories or need to be well away from humans. The ReservaEcológica Costenera Sur  in the middle of Buenos Aires for example is never going to have any jaguars, nor the NY High Line any mountain lions.
A point that Emma Marris makes in Rambunctious Nature is that this stylised nature offends some people, the 'ecologists' who are still wedded to the idea that 'nature' is something which can only happen 'out there' and untrammelled by us (Martha Schwartz's virgin/whore dichotomy). The central thrust of her book is that 'nature' should be seen as anywhere where natural processes have at least some leeway; certainly including the weedy waste ground at the end of the road.

Anyway, what is nature?
An awful lot of what we think of as 'natural' is actually human-managed, or human-impacted. This was one of the points I was trying to make from Bolivia a few weeks back.  So many cherished landscapes are actually farmland, or were trashed by our ancestors. Some human management actually improves biodiversity (a heretical thought for eco-purists), as in European hay meadows or fire-managed Midwest prairie and savannah.

Eco-illusions
One of the most insidious illusions of a particular romantic and often quite techno-phobic way of thinking is that our ancestors: 'traditional societies' or 'indigenous peoples', cherished nature, lived in balance with it, and we are somehow different. Hardly. We just have more destructive tools. Our ancestors consciously manipulated nature or made huge impacts on it in many different ways (again see the Bolivia post). These ways are sometimes so deep in the past that we are not aware of them – we do not even know what 'nature' is.
  • Fire – some areas have had millennia of burning for game management (much of the grasslands of the Americas, Australia, Scotland)
  • Mass extinction – our tribal ancestors wiped out wildlife on an epic scale, with the Maori killing of the giant moa birds in New Zealand simply one of the latest episodes.
  • Farming – whether through slash-and-burn or more sophisticated methods, vast area of the globe have been cultivated at some stage.

I believe it is important that these illusions make it very difficult for us to appreciate the history of our wild and not-so-wild places, and therefore complicates the task of how we think about managing them in the future.

Farming, and more eco-illusions
Ok, we want wild: we like it, and we want it because we have finally recognised that the rest of creation has a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of (whatever passes for happiness in a newt's brain) as we have. We are getting used to the idea of nature in cities, and gardens, and that we can garden in such a way as to maximise it. We want nature reserves and national parks and wilderness areas – the latter probably as much to feed our own illusions about the 'wilderness' as actually to protect nature. And many of us would actually like a lot more for this kind of nature than there is currently is. We like to hike in it, birdwatch in it, see in on telly in David Attenborough programmes, above all to know it is there.

But.

There is an awful lot of us, and we are getting more, and richer, and when people get richer they demand more food, and more cotton, and palm oil and all the other stuff that consumer-humans want.

And the biggest destroyer of unmanaged landscapes is the agriculture which produces all this stuff.
Which is why we need to ensure that agriculture uses land really efficiently. This is something which again attracts lots of feel-good sounding eco-illusions. Many of the so-called sustainable farming approaches, such as organics, may be good and appropriate for marginal regions but fail utterly to deliver the sheer volume of calories needed. It is right and proper that fertile flat places are used for intensive arable production – with some areas set aside for nature of course. They can take the pressure off more biodiverse, more vulnerable habitats.

In thinking about how we 'garden the earth' I would suggest that this is the biggest blind-spot many people have – the failure to appreciate how efficient farming and nature conservation actually dovetail. Think of the earth as a garden, with a well-run tidy vegetable patch, a lawn area to play on, some nice wild borders and a really wild unmanaged bit somewhere.

The nation as garden – the Dutch analogy
'Gardening the earth' – was an expression I dreamt up years ago, in a essay for a collection in a book called Vista – Culture and Politics of Gardens. 

It is interesting to develop this analogy: we need places to grow food, to live, and for nature. The Netherlands seems to have come pretty close to this, with its very dense juxtapositioning of land for living, working, recreation, some of the productive farming on the planet, and yet with a long and pioneering history of habitat creation, and one of the most radical departures in wilderness creation – the Oostvaardeersplassen.

We have far more to thank those sensible, level-headed Dutch for than just tulips!

Nurturing nature
So, we are getting used to the idea of the earth as a garden. Often badly managed by us, and by our deep ancestors, for sure, but as we learn more about our ecological history, and about ecological processes, we can become better managers. We need to. As we are just about to reach a point where designed vegetation will play a vital role in how we manage the planet.
In April Piet Oudolf and I are bringing out another book – on planting design. The introduction however makes the point that we are expecting plants to do more and more for us: wetlands to manage sustainable drainage systems, green roofs to moderate the extremes of urban climates, bioremediation planting to purify effluent, living walls to clean the air. Managed vegetation will play a more and more important role in reducing the impacts of climate change, and might even help reverse the rise in CO2. Nurturing nature will not just be about creating habitat, but about planet-management too. As we nurture nature it in turn will nurture us.

19 comments:

LauraH said...

Very interesting and thoughtful post. I always enjoy your books and blog, just not sure where all this leaves me.

I garden in Toronto, in a bowling alley shaped space in an urban/suburban neighbourhood. So no acres or vista or view to be had. Everything I plant is right in my face, so to speak. My 'garden structure' consists of gravel paths, a garage used as a shed, a small pergola and a small slate patio. Plantings are mixed - small trees, shrubs, conifers, bulbs, perennials.

I've tried to incorporate Piet Oudolf's plant ideas with limited success - most grasses are too big and I don't have the direct sun that seems to be needed for many of his perennial plant suggestions. If I turn the whole thing over to that approach I won't have room for anything else. So I look and read with admiration but .......

carolyn mullet said...

"Earth as garden." Hmmm. Catchy phrase with a huge whollup.

Thomas Rainer said...

A great post. You've contributed quite a bit to this conversation through your collected works. You bring a broad and international perspective.

I'm very much looking forward to your new book with Oudolf. My copy of your last one is quite dog-eared and tattered.

Laurel said...

Thanks for the very thought-provoking post. I garden in Central New York state, on a not quite half-acre piece of suburb carved from former farmland. I love the look of "wild gardens" (a dichotomy, but not a contradiction), and I love many other kinds of gardens. They each have their own beauty and aesthetic. But you're right, there's no reason any garden can't fulfill multiple purposes within the human and natural environments. My patch of former farmland provides vegetables and flowers, habitat for birds and insects, native plants and a place for our kids to play. It's all good. I can't create a tropical garden here, and I don't want to imitate someone else's style plant for plant. But, I sure enjoy looking and dreaming and adapting some ideas from expert gardeners and landscape designers for my own yard, and seeing what my neighbors do in theirs (expert or not). Thanks for your blog; I'll have to explore it more.

Catharine Howard's Garden Blog said...

Defining what nature is is a difficult one. The only examples I can think of where the ecology has not been subverted to progress are the marginal pastoralist lands. How to translate what we see and muse on into responsible garden design? Am eying up The Principles of Ecological Landscape Design by Travis Beck. Yours too of course!

College Gardener said...

Thank you for this wonderful and thorough post. I really hope more people beyond landscaper designers and passionate garden afficionados will start thinking about these matters a bit more.

Andrew Stalham said...

A really nice gardening blog! - Keep us up to date on what is happening on your Garden Blog
It would be great to see you over at the Blooming Gardening Blogs Community.
http://www.bloomingblogs.com/apply-to-join-blooming-blogs/

Linda said...

Food for thought!
I'm Dutch myself. Very heated debates are going on here at the moment about what nature actually is. The natural state here is a kind of marsh. But the land has been farmed for hundreds of years now, and has its own ecosystem as well. If we start giving the land back to the water, that specific ecosystem gets lost as well....

Martin said...

I don’t think the idea of the earth as a garden is a new idea to get used to (see garden of Eden in the Bible), what is new is that we are starting to make considered attempts at recreating vegetation communities from scratch and directed attempts at managing ‘natural’ communities to achieve a specific aim i.e improved habitat for a target species. At the moment this seems to be a hit and miss affair mainly through lack of information on what is a large and complex subject.
I suspect that the money available for horticultural research in creating new plant communities will be limited, but a start would be perhaps a computer program that could select horticultural plants in terms of something like the Ellenberg values information that we have in the UK on native plants (see here with the English Bluebell http://www.brc.ac.uk/plantatlas/index.php?q=plant/hyacinthoides-non-scripta ) in combination with information similar to the national vegetation classification, as well as using the longevity data available from researchers like Hansen and Stahl. This is something that the designer does now but to a certain extent they choose using personal knowledge of plants work that may not always translate if they are working internationally.
The three main issues that would follow for the designer that would be important for urban areas are attractiveness, cost of maintenance and longevity.
In the wider UK countryside increased nitrogen deposition and changes in farming practice seem to be the biggest threats for many of our rarer native plants and I think we will increasingly move towards a future where our towns and cities are more biodiverse, especially in terms of plants, than much of our arable farmland. We’re probably there already on that one I imagine; it will be interesting to see what the results of the RHS bugs research brings.

Mario said...

As a gardener, I struggle with some of the points you make. So long as we garden, we are upsetting nature. I believe that to do nothing at all would be the only way to achieve authentic nature. That isn't going to happen though. The point is to find a balance, right? And perhaps draw a distinct line between what is manmade and what is truly natural so we never forget or lose site of it.

christine said...

It is very nice when nature in the city does look nice but it requires work and some cities or communities just don't want to take the time to do it.
Thanks for sharing your pictures of the New York High Line . It is very beautiful I think

Dan said...

Excellent point about much of "nature" being influenced by human activity. From the Australian outback to the Amazon rainforest any environment that humans have moved into (which is pretty much all of them bar (perhaps) Antarctica) they have changed to one extent or another. The trick is to appreciate how much of a difference we are making by our presence and to try to moderate it for the benefit of not just ourselves but of other organisms as well.

Simple on paper, not so in practice.

We work in Thailand and the indifference of some people to what influence plants that are fashionable have on the local flora and fauna is worrying, to say the least.

The Gardening Shoe said...

I like the global and historical perspective of this post, but when it comes to gardening, we are concerned with individuals. Some of these individuals will be influenced by fashion, or what they see in magazines, at flower shows or in the Olympic Park. My concern here is that when the fashion for stylised nature passes, these gardens will be grubbed up in favour of the next fashion - and where will the creatures who have come to rely on the network of nature-inspired gardens go then?

On a positive note, there are many gardeners who know their gardens intimately. People who can tell you when/where they saw a newt or a bat - the kind of custodians who will spend an hour counting the birds which land in their garden. For these people, cause and effect has more importance than fashion. So I suppose it is the reason behind the decision to create a natural-looking garden which is at the heart of my concerns.

One of the problems I have with stylised nature is the tendency to kill grass and remove topsoil to create the perfect environment for a stylised wildflower meadow. It all seems to miss the point rather. I suppose it is the concept of removing a bit of nature we don't like, to create a more appealing version of nature that I find a little difficult to stomach. Much as I love the Olympic Park, I cannot forget that there were natural habitats on that site before we created a corner of aesthetically pleasing stylised nature.

Linda's comment is very enlightening. Allowing our fertile Fens to revert to their natural state would do little for the ecosystems there and it certainly would not help to feed a hungry planet.

marianstclair said...

Certainly, I haven't been able to give this post the time it deserves, but my off-the-cuff response is a garden, any garden, is nature; just as any man is an animal. Why don't we get this concept?

Sandi's Garden Patch said...

HI Noel
I like your front picture. It caught my eye. Enjoyed your article, got me thinking.

In Australia don't think we treat nature as a whore, but as a commodity, lets dig it up. Which makes me sad espcially in the Outback where the colour of land and sky and plants is brillant and then they wreck it. We have a mess with our National Parks, because Australia started as States and then became one country so everybody does their own thing. Took me years to realise that the Conversation Department of governments doesn't mean looking after the land, it means we can cut it down, dig it or ignore it. Our lovely Victorian Liberal Gov. has just slashed many jobs of people who were out in the field trying to save our indigenous flora and fauna.

It makses me really cross, that we don't care about our wild/farmed areas.

I am tried of the same of politicans who are business men wanting to make money by mining, logging etc.
Actually I think nature and gardens mess together, plants self seed from other places brought it by wind, water, animals, just as we plant things. Try as humans like, we can control the garden to a point, but plants always like to go their own way.
Cheers Sandi

jayneonweedstreet said...

Very provacative post, much to contemplate and ponder! I know for certain that trying to plant in a more natural way and in harmony with your space on Earth can bring unexpected consequences. While I was happy to see bluebirds return, I was less thrilled to find ground hogs appear. And while I love a good garter snake or two, I was less than thrilled to find an enormous couple of water snakes move in. As Nature found its way to my yard with less and less grass and over manicured spaces, I had to learn to appreciate the results!

Gardens at Waters East said...

Liked your words today. Always interesting to read your blog. I learn from you. That is good! Jack

Hornby Island Style said...

Noel,
Eco-illusions.I love that phrase.
Keep writing.You are interesting.
Thank-you for the intelligent and balanced views you offer.
gina-rae horvath

Hornby Island Style said...

Eco-illusions.I love that .I appreciate your intelligent and balanced views .
Thank-you.You also make me smile when I read your stuff.
gina-rae horvath