Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Troubling Phrase "Native Plant Nazi"

You've probably heard the term "native plant Nazi" used in one context or another. Over the last few years I've heard it used less and less, thankfully, but someone recently used it in a social media comment and, well, it really set off some triggers for me. Almost always the term is used in a passive aggressive / defensive context, particularly in a highly emotional thought. There's nothing wrong with being emotional, but I want to think critically about the terms and others like it that signal defensiveness or self protection.

A native plant proponent can often elicit doubt, confusion, and even a little bit of guilt and rage in gardeners and landscapers. Native plants imply that we're gardening not just for ourselves -- or even primarily for ourselves -- but that we are gardening for other humans and especially for other species. In a nation founded on personal freedom, liberty, and individual property rights, the idea of a garden as part of community -- or even as part of a larger shared ecosystem -- can be unnerving and complicating. Sometimes, a native plant proponent can come off as being passionately hardline, especially so if their language is earnest, decisive, and puncturing the status quo of both western civilization and the green / hort industry. That latter group thrives on developing new plants, as well as producing the exact same plants (through cuttings), in order to maintain consistency for salable goods. Native plants, especially the benefits of open-pollinated, local ecotype plants, doesn't just seem to subvert an industry, but may appear to attack it and the gardeners it serves.

But the perceived attack or threat is actually just critical thinking. How can we improve cultivating plants, growing plants, designing with plants so that we are helping wildlife and ecosystems revive and thrive? Such questions should be at the very heart and soul of why we garden, not an undermining impulse. Certainly, gardens our emotional places -- they are personal artworks, places of solace, places to deal with grief or find joy or recall loved ones or carefully step into a wild world we've alienated ourselves from. Gardens are psychologically complex. When new ideas of what a garden is or how it is are presented, it can feel very uncomfortable because it asks us to think in new ways, often deeper ways. Add in the realities of climate change and mass extinction, that our hand in the environment has severe repercussions for both good and ill, and suddenly gardens become less about simple joy and pleasure and more about social activism -- or more about an awareness of our complicity in something uncomfortable and terrible.

But for me, being conscious of the social (human and other species) nature of gardens is liberating and empowering. For as much as we destroy nature and erode living systems, we can work to reconnect and bind them together again. Our power is real. If we can recognize that our first, strongly emotional responses to deeper awareness are both natural and problematic -- if we can recognize emotion as not the end step but the beginning step -- maybe we'll stop labeling / dismissing ideas that challenge us. Maybe we'll realize the naturally defensive posture we take in order to protect our world view and sense of self is something we need to overcome in order to evolve as a compassionate species -- one stewarding the earth and learning about its rich complexities.

A "native plant nazi" is a term that conjures up a terribly evil period in our species's history. Using the "N" word is not only unfair but highly divisive and destructive -- it does the opposite of what it probably intends. No Gestapo will show up at your house and forcibly remove your hosta, butterfly bush, or daffodils from their beds. There will be no death camps for your daylily. There will be no laws enacted that demand genetic purity of local origin in your backyard. There will be no blitzkrieg, as long as the exotic plants don't escape cultivation and erode ecosystems beyond the garden fence. Native plants foster diversity and community while reviving the wildness of our ecoregions. In effect, native plants celebrate life, foster empathy and compassion, and ask us to think more deeply about how we influence the world around us as a species capable of being more than we've shown.


Kezar Lady said...

This goes far beyond gardening. Thanks for a thoughtful article as I dream of my green spaces that are currently buried in deep and quiet snow. Our natural environment is under so many varied pressures that any positive action by the garden stewards is important I was so pleased that Maine enacted stronger laws about invasive plants being sold by "nurseries".
I will be giving a short presentation through our local land trust about thoughtful planting on lake shorelines.I hope to urge folks to think native first and to consider pollinators. May I use this article?
Thank you,
Linda Wurm
Greater Lovell Land Trust
and old gardener!

Benjamin Vogt said...

Linda -- Yes, of course. Everything here is free for the taking, especially if you reference me. :) Yes, this all goes far beyond gardening, which is what my new book will be addressing this fall when it's released. Send us your snow! We've had less than 6" this year!