According to author Emma Marris, rambunctious gardening is proactive and optimistic; it creates more and more nature as it goes, rather than just building walls around the nature we have left. In this precocious look at our role in the natural world (past, present, and future) Marris walks a thin line between debunking (or at least rationally considering) the various approaches to “saving nature” and advocating for a more thoughtful approach. Using wide-ranging examples the author describes an increasing awareness in the field of ecology that the traditional goals of conservation are not only unachievable globally but also too narrow. She defines those goals as largely focusing on preserving pristine wildernesses by turning back the clock on them to an arbitrary “baseline” date before modern civilization and “non-native” species, arrived.
Marris’ argues for a more adult and more hopeful view. She argues that the whole notion of “pristine wilderness” is really untenable in practice since humans have always altered the ecosystems around them and that nature is everywhere, constantly in flux. She makes this argument by describing visits to several leading-edge conservation projects and honestly analyzing their goals and likely outcomes. While she admires the motivation and efforts of some of the best-known environmental activists, she objects to their hard-line public approach to conservation and argues for a more nuanced approach — one that does not assume that all human influence on the planet is bad. In the author’s view, the “all or nothing” approach of those who want to revert to a more pristine world only sets us up for a lifetime of mourning what has been lost (and likely cannot be regained).
Instead, the author prefers to adopt a mindset that considers the gardener a net plus in our own ecosystems. As a gardener, you are increasing the diversity of plant species on your property. If you work at it, the soil ends up more nutritious and rich than when you began. You can also garden for many different goals: to support wildlife, to increase the diversity of your property, or to give precedence to natives over exotics.
Gardeners are on the front lines of this battle. There are people who want exotics and people who don’t. That’s not to say that some plants aren’t real headaches—even “invasive”. But nature will generally sort itself out, though in some places gardeners will need to work harder than in others. But putting it back the way it was is largely a futile quest. Better to understand that change over time is always part of the equation and do what we can to move that change in a positive, more hopeful direction.
This is not a ‘how to’ book. It won’t necessarily help you get exactly the ‘look’ you are going for in that new bed you are digging for next year. But it will give you a better idea how you fit into the created world around you and help you take a more hopeful view of what you do in your own space as a gardener.