Monday, April 13, 2015

The Deeper Debate About Native Plants -- Ethics, Empathy, Freedom

The "debate" about native plants is actually one about our larger role on the planet. The often used "dogma" or "agenda" labels ascribed to native plant proponents are meant to trivialize, because taking responsibility for how we live -- and coming to terms with the web of life in western culture -- has always meant an undermining of perceived personal liberty. And that hurts. We don't want to feel hurt. We have a happiness myth that says anything "sad" must be bad and therefore undesirable and therefore erased from culture and consciousness. Unfortunately, we've been poisoned with hierarchical thinking that says we -- American humans -- know best, and that we must push the myth of happiness (or denial) at any cost, because conformity is freedom.

I can think of no greater freedom than living a more selfless life in any way I can, providing for others, seeing myself as part of a web, humbled and connected to my home ground, full of where I am from.  Knowing that what I plant matters -- or where I drive or what container I drink from or where my electricity comes from -- is not an indictment but a call to action. Awareness and knowledge create freedom and positive change, which terrifies individuals and groups who have the majority power and profit through our world's loss.

If we can't see native plants as anything more than a personal indictment we can't see the greater good, the democratic principal of inalienable rights that all lives have to live out their time on earth naturally and freely (we do currently perceive this via monarch butterflies). Once upon a time lawns were seen as the democratic ideal, linking houses together in a sign of egalitarian unity; we know now what large swaths of lawn truly represent, and they mimic a scaled down version of what our larger practices represent -- from tar sands oil extraction to overfishing to plastic pollution to wasting fresh water to glyphostate.

Or, "I don't JUST love plants...."
I do not think the debate is about native plants vs. exotics, even though we seldom realize it or address it; instead, the debate is about a burgeoning awareness of how we have forever altered the world, often in destructive and terrifyingly unpredictable ways, and that to change our course means changes to our safe and comfortable assumptions that are culturally, socially, and corporately defined.

This is why the novel ecosystem perspective is so tantalizing -- it helps us transition away from unhappy awareness and a closer study of ourselves and our world, shifting the burden of proof or responsibility to something beyond our control; we are part of nature, and thus our manipulation of it requires no "restrictive" ethical code that could guide us to a profound reality of our human condition. A reality that shows we are as fragile and temporary and prone to dust as any other life form on the planet (thus equal and connected), and that our hearts and minds are not so much a liability as an evolutionary miracle and profound gift. That aforementoned liability comes in the form of empathy for other species and for future generations of humans; surely empathy is the greatest equalizer in the web of life, and it's our most important faculty. It's also the greatest freedom we can give ourselves as we garden selflessly and become empowered through the act of planting aster, oak, goldenrod, mountain mint, viburnum, or milkweed.

What's the next step? Where do we begin? Creating landscapes with as many site-adapted natives as we can, in designs that are appealing, artistic, and demonstrate the full capacity of our natural heritage and ethical role on this world. Where else? Sitting still in front of a flower for ten minutes watching what lands and takes off, what climbs the stalk, what waits in hiding for prey; think of it as empathy exercise, spiritual exercise, or the freedom of consciousness to dream bigger.


Chris Erickson said...

First of all, I'm a fan of the caption in your picture. I was commenting on another article recently and trying to come up with exactly it was that I enjoyed about having wildlife around and it hit me that it's not about watching isolated things it's about watching different things: plants, insects, birds, interact with each other. Funny that then I saw this quote about interactions a few days later.

I enjoyed your thoughtful post and would like to echo many of your sentiments. Nothing vexes me more than people who do something just because that's how you're supposed to do it. Lawns fall in that category for sure. When I decide to pick a fight with someone over traditional vs. natural/native landscaping I always seem to fall back on the fact that natural landscapes are just so much more interesting and rewarding to be around. All the interactions, for example. Perhaps when the world was all wild creating a little formal somewhat artificial plot of land around your dwelling was good for people's health, but our world is certainly not very wild anymore and I think without a doubt more "wild" out the back and front doors would do everyone good from a physical and mental standpoint.

Unknown said...

Great Blog post Benjamin- I obsessed a bit with the "amateur" quote on your Facebook page- trying to get my head around the divide between native and non-native landscaping...two different worlds really and so hard to bridge the gap. You've captured it well with your words.

Lisa Wilcox Deyo said...

Wonderful essay, and I liked its gentle, persuasive tone. It doesn't damn people for being out of touch with their environment, but invites them in.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Chris -- Yup, "nature" in the way we think of it -- romantically -- no longer exists. Even though we have a new reality created by us, nature can still instruct and guide us and fill us up, if we stop creating theories to explain it away and accept our destructive ways.
Jennifer -- Word. I don't know if they're two different world, because non native plant gardeners care about the same things a lot of the time (helping wildlife etc) there's just a disconnect.
Lisa -- Thank you. Of course, we are damned, we are out of touch, and I think some people need to hear the gentler voice and others the harder one.

Sue Reed said...

As always, I applaud your courage in trying to forge a new social construct about how we humans manipulate and influence the land where we live. And, like you, I do not agree with the new fad of surrendering to an inevitable reality of places that have been permanently altered/ruined by our stupidity, now innocuously labeled "novel ecosystems." I only disagree with your statement that nature no longer exists. The thing that no longer exists, in my opinion, is untouched wilderness. However, and this is a vital distinction, WILDNESS still exists, because wildness is simply nature at work. And nature is pure physics. It is the laws of thermodynamics in action. It is the creating force and underlying process of all life. So, while we humans are certainly capable of eliminating "natural areas," nature itself goes on forever, with or without us.

Anonymous said...

After following you on Facebook and this blog they have move me and hence my yard to embrace native. It will be a life-long endeavor and well-worth it for all.

Unknown said...

I recently saw an excellent presentation by Doug Tallamy at Kansas University presented by Monarch Watch about native plants. He had this book for sale there.

Really makes you think twice about the plants you buy from the nursery, not to mention the systemic insecticides.

Aaron PeeksMease said...

"we are as fragile and temporary and prone to dust as any other life form on the planet (thus equal and connected), and that our hearts and minds are not so much a liability as an evolutionary miracle and profound gift." - I really loved this.