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March 20th, 2013

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09:00 am - Rambunctious Garden

Emma Marris

I’ve read this book twice.

The first time, I thought it was going to affect my approach to restoration as deeply as Crow Planet had (which was my first encounter with a critique of the false dichotomy of the urban/nature divide). I even said to myself (rather embarrassing to admit) “How shall we tend the rambunctious garden of this crow planet?” Everything felt like a revelation, this was a manifesto that was going to crumble the walls of the prison and free all within.

The second time, I did get a deeper understanding of the ideas of the book, and why the author presented them.

One important challenge is the idea of the “baseline.” How far back do we reach? The problem of “the baseline” is a difficult one. In North America, it appears easy: first European contact. But “first contact” might be after smallpox had wiped out most of the population; Europeans making first contact were already finding degraded cultures with most of their practices reduced or even lost. First contact might have included some botanic experts, but as often as not, it was fur trappers. If the first attempts at scientifically describing the landscape occurred after fur trapping wiped out the beavers, the hydrology has already been severely disrupted. Between smallpox and beaver extirpation, we have two layers of disruption before our supposed baseline.

Let’s not forget the racist implications of thinking that pre-European contact the Americas existed in a state of nature. Increasing evidence indicates that, in fact, in North America lands were settled soon after glacier retreat and were managed right from the start. One of the habitats that people are putting a lot of effort into restoring, Garry Oak savannah, is completely anthropogenic. The idea that the Americas, before Europeans, were “pristine” and unmanaged excludes the roles that Native Americans and First Nations peoples played in managing the environment.

The baseline for park restoration efforts is 1850. This is after smallpox and beaver extirpation, true; but it’s between botanizing and settlement. It’s a useful fiction because it gives us a target, but it’s not an absolute truth.

Once we realize that the “baseline” is a useful fiction, then we need to think about novel or hybrid ecosystems – that is, ecosystems based on combinations of native and introduced species, or completely new assemblages. What if a tree is a weed in one ecosystem but endangered in its native range? What about plants that have no native range as such? Is there value to the increasing expense of fighting back the increasing list of invasive species?

These are only some of the questions that Marris raises in “Rambunctious Garden.” Each chapter looks at a different aspect of restoration – restoring to a baseline; natives vs. introduced; pristine vs. modified – looking at what people are doing, what the challenges are, how problems might be approached differently.

For my own part, all I can say is “the journey continues.” I’m more interested in getting ivy, blackberry, and other monocultural weeds out than I am in meeting a “baseline” community or replicating an historical example.

Mirrored from Nature Intrudes. Please comment over there.


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