Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Suburbia, red in tooth and claw

On a recent trip to the US I found myself in several conversations with people about animals in the garden. Some astonishment that we do not have coyotes in Britain, nor racoons, or groundhogs, and that our deer are relatively small and tend to run off at the mere glimpse or whiff of a human, and unless you are very unlucky, do little damage to the garden. There's a lot more wildlife out there in those American woods, and for gardeners a lot more capacity for damage. The deer for a start, are enormous, and remarkably fearless. No wonder so many gardeners get obsessed with them, or more accurately how to keep them out. Actually they are a much more serious problem, as nature reserves and other areas of habitat can suffer some pretty serious impact from continued deer browsing - to the point of major ecological damage.

Soon after I got back I got an email from Helen Yoest in Raleigh, NC, with a book review about this very issue. the woods are reclaiming the suburbs and the wildlife problems that result, or is it the suburbs invading the woods? Interesting stuff, and something which follows on from my recent blog with the rather lurid Martha Schwartz quote. The first few generations of European settlers felled every tree in sight, farmed, then realised that much of the land was too poor, and moved west, to plough up the much more fertile prairie. The woodland fought back. Very successfully. Whereas in Britain, woodland re-establishes itself through a fairly slow process, in the US, I feel that if all human beings disappeared one day (selective gamma ray burst that leaves other species standing?), then ten years later there would almost be no trace left of their presence. Trees re-establish so quickly. The upshot is that much of the area where people live is actually forest: roads, houses, gardens etc. are carved out of the forest. The wildlife, deer especially, have bounced back from the days when they hunted by anyone and everyone, to enormous numbers, numbers which in the absence of enough predators (i.e. not enough coyotes, bears, wolves, guys with guns who can shoot straight) have rocketed. Not good for gardeners, not actually very good for the environment, or even for the health of deer populations. For much of the wildlife, humanity is no longer a threat, but a source of food and habitat.

I am reminded of the British equivalent, the urban fox; cities support far more foxes than the countryside - all those bins to raid, discarded take-away meals, food left out for hedgehogs etc. No longer afraid, the wild animals creep back. Except that having exterminated all the big predators centuries ago (wolves, wild cats, bears, lynx) the urban wildlife we have is very unbalanced. Bring back the wolf? except that the farmers would complain (more than farmers complain anyway) and I somehow don't see large predators being welcome in British cities and suburbs.

Deer clearly need intelligent culling, and a more natural source of meat cannot be imagined. But in both the US and Britain, any mention of a cull brings storms of protest - often from people who are quite happy to sit down and eat meat from farmed animals. Another symptom of a failure to engage with the realities of life on earth.

What is so strange about this suburban woodland which so many US citizens choose to live in, is the extreme contrast with areas deemed to be landscaped: the vast deserts of grass mown to within an inch of its life, the extensive mulchscape which surround 'plantings' of evergreen shrubs ruthlessly pruned into meatballs. Much US landscaping and its management seems to express almost a hatred of vegetation, or as often with hatred, is it really fear (as with misogynist men). Or is it just job-creation? In the land of the ruthless corporate downsize, it seems strange that so many hands are paid to keep doing what is so apparently pointless. At one stage I got talking to a guy who worked as a landscape architect, he was fairly new into his career and was clearly on the bottom rung, designing landscapes for MacDonalds outlets etc.; he had almost no room for creativity - local zoning/planning requirements are incredibly prescriptive about how many shrubs had to be planted, what size, spacing etc. Driving through the junkscape outside Raleigh: endless auto retail outlets, strip malls, fast food outlets, box stores, made me feel very depressed. Such waste of space, such mediocrity on an epic scale, such obsession with control, above all the CONFORMITY. The conformity that we expected from Soviet communism, but which these supposedly free citizens embraced.

 Will it ever change? I thought about the various people over the years I have met who have fought for the right to grow meadow or prairie in their front yards. It is a battle that is still being fought, against the totalitarian instincts of lawn ordinances and neighbourhood associations. Thinking of the Highline, and the other projects which it is beginning to inspire which embrace wildness, I realised that it may be a very slow process, but things are changing. And - that I, with my writing and lecturing, am part of this process. My first American lecture tour was in 1996, as part of a group, organised by Horticulture magazine and called 'Wild Style'. My realisation made me feel less depressed, and left me with a strange feeling of subversive power; I, chuntering down the freeway in my anonymous rental Ford Fiesta (BTW Ford have a green roof on their Dearborn, MI, plant) am doing something about this. The ability of nature to take back lost ground is so obvious here, much more so than at home, it only needs permission. Let's give it, but remember, it will have some consequences which we need to be brave and sensible about.


Panayoti Kelaidis said...

Wonderful post, Noel! I live in the middle of a megalopolis of nearly 4 million people: I have had up to 3 very large mule deer in my garden at night for years, I have a veritable brace of munching rabbits in my garden, and there are prairie dogs nearby, raccoons, skunks and Heaven only knows what other hungry critters to contend with. I did have a fox (who at least kept down the rabbits) but not for several years. At least we do not have Lyme disease in Denver yet--but the battle between animals and people is ongoing. Alas! The critters are cute--but they make gardening much less fun.

balsamfir said...

Over the puddle, the predators aren't gone, but people keep trying to shoot them instead of the deer... I spent tonight listening to a pack of coyote/wolf mix singing, but also worrying that the locals at the event I was attending would come back to kill them. The warm winters have made it hard to find and hunt the deer, so the hunters think the problem is the 4 legged predators(who admittedly can be a problem for dogs).

Helen/patientgardener said...

I wouldnt say wildlife in the garden isnt a problem here in the UK. I live in Malvern on the edge of a housing estate and this year have had to endure a badger rampaging around the garden digging up all the tulip bulbs. This isnt because he cant find food elsewhere, there is a golf course nearby surrounded by woodland where no doubt the badger lives but instead he has burrowed under our fence and trashed the garden. So I completely sympathise with the US gardens struggling with deer etc.

It is interesting reading US gardening blogs how many of them are surrounded by large trees and what appears to be forest. I suppose we are such a heavily populated island that any cleared land doesnt really get a chance to be re-forested. It is also interesting to watch the US's obsession with bland dull landscaping and I particularly enjoy the articles on garden rant along these lines

Unknown said...

Quite an interesting point of view! Good post!

Nic said...

Thank you for this brilliant post! I abhor those meatball shrubs and all that mulch and lawn. My home state of Michigan is probably amongst the worst parts of the country in that regard. Maybe because of all that abusive and dead - both in terms of imagination and ecology - landscaping I relish the vigor with which our wildlife takes over wherever it is given a chance. I have even come to be relatively at peace with the deer, although they come to the family garden in the Detroit suburbs a dozen at a time to nibble on lily buds and the twigs of young trees. I understand the ecological need for reducing deer numbers - and at least in Michigan deer hunting continues to be an extremely common past time - but at the level of my neighborhood I am ok with giving up a lily or hydrangea here and there for the pastoral fantasy of the occasional strolling herd of deer.

Jason said...

Great post. I live in an inner ring suburb of Chicago. Our wildlife is often sometimes a pleasure, especially the birds, and occasionally a nuisance, especially the skunks and rabbits. Wildlife has not had a big negative impact on our gardening because, thank God, we have no deer in this area. Nearby, however, they are a scourge. There is a small nature preserve that has been terribly damaged by deer overpopulation. Even the most modest attempts to control the deer are met with hysterical opposition. It is odd that city people are much more sentimental about animals than farm or country people. I suspect this is in part because city people have less contact with animals and have more romantic, and anthropomorphic, notions of what animals are like.

A big part of the problem, of course, is that there is a lack of predators. And some of the same people who get upset about harming the "good" deer are also determined to keep out the "bad" coyotes.

Kathy Fitzgerald said...

When it comes to my front-yard vegetable garden, I feel less than dewy-eyed about Bambi and his little toady-friend, Thumper. Still, I understand about balance in nature; we put out food for the local foxes, raccoons, feral cats and possums, whose presence keep deer and bunny browsing to acceptable levels.
And you are so right about the depressing preponderance of meatball-bushes and mulch. At base, it's most likely a control issue. Americans working in groups have a frightening tendency to develop megalomania.

Dee/reddirtramblings said...

Thank you for this post. Things are starting to change, but very, very slowly. I think the chemical companies and their advertising are still part of the problem. The idea that we are in constant combat with nature is disheartening, but people are curious about reducing lawns and other monochromatic schemes. I so enjoyed your post.~~Dee

Alex Krasovskis said...

Probably the major wildlife problem in Australia (where coincidentally i live) is the possum. They are hungry little critters.