Friday, May 30, 2014

Deep Thinking on the Ethical Garden

I've been working for a week on talks for the Loess Hills Prairie Seminar and the Millersville Native Plants in the Landscape Conference, and I ran out of room to include some chunks of writing by others that have really guided my thinking. If / when this all ever turns into a book, I'd like to include these ideas. So for your reading pleasure:

David Gessner on slowing down our lives, how this focuses our ethical treatment of the planet and ourselves, about being patient (and oh how a garden teaches patience!):

As the writer Wendell Berry pointed out long ago, the environmental crisis is a crisis of character. It isn’t simply that too many of us are gulping down the gasoline and other goodies that corporations are forever dishing out; it’s also the way that we’re doing it. When we race to a thing, consume it, and then race off to the next thing, there’s no sense of our ever having gotten to know that thing—whether it’s a place, a person, an animal, or a resource. A culture of speed can quickly become a culture of glibness. There’s a reason that environmentalists who fight for the land and against the coring-out of the earth so often frame the battle as one waged on behalf of our children and grandchildren. It’s because—cliché though it may sound—that is exactly who we are fighting for. Patience begins when we acknowledge the value in taking this long-term view of things, when we justify the continued fight by citing something beyond our own immediate needs, or someone beyond ourselves.

To state it another way, it’s about breaking free from the tyranny of now. One of the great challenges in trying to get people—including politicians—to recognize the reality of climate change is that there always seem to be a thousand other problems that demand our immediate attention at any given moment. We’ll react to emergency: a hurricane, a twister, a fire. But even then, will our reaction really entail slowing down enough to reflect on what we ought to be doing, and how we ought to be acting, in the long term—when we’re not directly experiencing a crisis?

To be truly patient is to choose one thing for a while. And that means not choosing other things. It definitely means not choosing everything. In my own life, I’ve learned that there are some goals that cannot be achieved without putting other things aside. The writing of books, for instance. The same could be said of almost any other large and worthy ambition—like, say, saving the planet. As an essential tool for that long-term goal, patience is more than just practical. It has the power to save us from ourselves.

Sara Stein telling it like it is:

We have left our land too retarded to take care of itself, much less to be of any help to us. This is not someone else’s problem. We — you and I and everyone who has a yard of any size — owns a big chunk of this country. Suburban development has wrought habitat destruction on a grand scale. As these tracts expand, they increasingly squeeze the remaining natural ecosystems, fragment them, and sever corridors by which plants and animals might refill the voids we have created. To reverse this process — to reconnect as many plant and animal species as we can to rebuild intelligent suburban ecosystems — requires a new kind of garden, new techniques of gardening, and, I emphasize, a new kind of gardener.

One of the most thoughtful reviews I have ever read, on a book I am anxious to read -- William Jordan's The Sunflower Forest. This chunk discusses how to embrace the pain of ecological destruction, turn it on its head to create power and define restoration work / gifting in the land and in our hearts:

Given its universality, it should surprise us little that restoration is an encounter with shame, in the face of our killing unwanted vegetation and exerting our control over the land. This is especially shameful when we assure ourselves we are engaging in restoration precisely in order to give life back to degraded systems, and that our intention is to relinquish control over the land. Restorationists cannot simply wave their divine hands, as a god might, and turn back the ecological clock. Restorationists have to address the very real limitations of their skills. But it is precisely by experiencing shame that restoration produces value. As Jordan puts it: “The great value of ecological restoration, I now believe, is that it provides an ideal, even unique context for negotiating […] the development of a relationship between ourselves and the classic landscape.”

In this way, Jordan has radically transformed the terms of the environmental debate. Other environmental ideologies posit either a fallen nature given to exploitation by a redeemed and therefore innocent humanity, or posit a pristine and inviolate nature immeasurably disturbed by an irretrievably wretched humanity. Since there is a little monstrousness — a certain loss of sentimental innocence — on both sides of the divide between humans and the rest of nature, this acknowledgment can generate a newer solidarity with nature. There is, Jordan says, a “continuity of shame” between humans and the rest of nature.

The acknowledgment of shame, of our mortification at our human limitations, and of the troubling brutality of nature, is not an end in itself. To merely stare across the gulf between us and the rest of nature is to court horror, not relationship. Relationship and its rewards come from dealing with shame. So, what is the recipe for developing true community with nature through restoration?

Ecological restoration, meant in Jordan’s full sense, purportedly brings us into community with the rest of nature in a number of distinctive ways. The practice makes us aware of the repercussions of our ongoing involvement in sullying natural systems. It provides a means of direct engagement with nature since, in contrast to wilderness protection, for instance, it involves beneficent trammeling (the restorationist is armed with a bow-saw rather than binoculars). It is also redemptive insofar as it is “the first phase in the cycle of giving and taking back that is the ecological foundation for any relationship.” To be sure, the gift is inadequate and “unworthy.” If restoration culture enables us to figuratively but productively deal with shame and with transcending shame, then, arguably, we get to so-called higher values, including, Jordan argues, beauty.
The fact is that, for all of its claims to radicality, environmentalism is of a piece with the shame-denying aspects of the broader culture it critiques. Restoration ecology, by contrast, provides a new paradigm for thinking about humans and nature.

And finally Thomas Rainer naming power:

The front lines of the battle for nature are not the Amazon rain forest or the Alaskan wilderness; the front lines are our backyards, medians, parking lots, and elementary schools. The ecological warriors of the future won’t just be scientists, engineers, or even landscape architects.  The 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.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Being Reported to the County Weed Control for my Lawn

Last week, after two garden consults and a presentation on native plants, I came home to a letter in the mail:

I vowed that if I ever received such a letter, I would rip out the lawn and seed in shortgrass prairie -- little bluestem, sideoats grama, and buffalo grass. My best guess is that the guy across the street, who mows 3 times per week, waters religiously, and whose lawn looks artificial, had enough of my mowing 2-4 times a summer and at the highest setting. But it could be anyone. Here's what our lawn looked like before my wife mowed it today (I wanted to hold out until the last possible minute, but she just wanted to get it done):

You can see by the image that, while not being a pristine lawn (I never water or fertilize), it's far from weedy or overgrown. On the edge it grows faster, where neighbor water and nutrient runoff hits my property. There are a few dandelion seed head stalks in the foreground.

Here's the letter I wrote in response to the superintendent:

Lancaster County Weed Control
Attn: Brent Meyer, Superintendent
Work Order: W79922

Dear Mr. Meyer,
Yesterday I received a notice about “weeds and worthless vegetation” on my property. After reviewing the noxious weed list online it is evident that I am not growing purple loosestrife, Canada thistle or any of the others listed; indeed, as a board member of Wachiska Audubon, a prairie conservation group, I would never grow such plants and am well aware of the issues surrounding them and other exotic invasives in our ecosystems.

I would appreciate clarification, pertinent to my property, about what the issue is. If it is the 15-20 dandelions in the lawn, a quick drive through the neighborhood will show many yards have the imported weed currently blooming, including my immediate neighbors; dandelion is an important first nectar source for many early-emerging native bees and other insects that are key to performing essential pollinator services.

If the issue is the length of my lawn, I do routinely stay behind my neighbors in my mowing regime as I work to conserve soil moisture, grow deeper roots, and out compete most weeds organically. I try to keep the front at the 6” ordinance heights, while allowing lawn behind the fence to go much beyond this limit.

My 1,500’ backyard native plant garden has been featured in the Lincoln Journal Star, Omaha World Herald, online at the magazines Fine Gardening and Garden Design, and has been on several local garden tours. In addition, it has been mentioned and linked to on the blog The Buzz at Cherry Creek – a website that explores the evolution of a pollinator garden being established by UNL Extension where your office is located. You can find images and a description of my award-winning garden here:

I’m sure you are aware of the need to conserve water, maintain higher lawn lengths, and even to mitigate lawns in general from our public and private landscapes as we experience drought boom and bust cycles and shrinking wildlife habitats. I have been thinking about creating large shortgrass prairie beds to replace most of my front lawn – buffalo grass, sideoats grama, and little bluestem. As a part time garden designer working with clients in Omaha and Lincoln, and writing a weekly sustainable garden column at, I’m well aware of the challenges and perceptions such a landscape would have in my suburban community and the need for thoughtful design.

I look forward to hearing back from you on a clarification of this matter.

Benjamin Vogt

So, what are your thoughts everyone? Tired of a a culture that promotes the wasting of clean, drinkable water, especially in prairie states prone to drought cycles and water restrictions? What about all the water used and greenhouse gasses produced to create synthetic fertilizers? What about the noise pollution from mowers that causes temporary ear damage? Or about the mower exhaust, many times worse than a car's, that leads to hypertension, lung disease, and low sperm counts?

If you have a tiller bring it on over. We'll only leave a narrow lawn walkway up the middle leading to the backyard, and the rest will be sustainable prairie.

So much for signs educating others and creating positive change.