Sunday, March 6, 2016

Native Plants Don't Turn Back the Clock

That's the phrase I often hear -- we can't go back. The implication is that any sense of restoration using native plants and native plant communities is folly; the world is much different now than before we altered it, and the ecology of place no longer resembles the past. And this is true -- we've totally remade the world, from corn fields to parking lots to acidic oceans to 400ppm of carbon in the air. But here's the best response I've ever heard to the above critique:

"Contrary to claims by advocates of fostering and molding novel ecosystems, modern restoration ecology does not attempt to recreate the past; rather, the goal is to re-establish the historical trajectory of an ecosystem before anthropogenic influences derailed it.... There is no evidence that any particular ecosystem cannot be restored in the sense of modern restoration ecology; the impediments are economic and political, not scientific and technological... The contention that novel ecosystems are inevitable and perhaps desirable encourages any tendency to delay prevention and redress of various harmful environmental impacts rather than to undertake new approaches and to devote new resources to long-term solutions to environmental problems."-- Daniel Simberloff (read his complete piece here)

A small restoration -- but it will only ever be a prairie echo
Folks who may be uncomfortable with native plants might be uncomfortable with what they represent, which is a full awareness of our heavy hand on the planet and our emotional and mental inability to overcome the grief associated with immense and even overwhelming loss (we are in the 6th extinction). The first response when confronted with massive levels of grief or loss is to protect ourselves via anger, denial, and a refusal to open up our wounded hearts again -- or as one might call it, expansive thinking or emotional awareness beyond ourselves. When someone uses the critique that we can't go back, that native plant gardens are backwards thinking or a fool's errand, we must understand that this perspective comes from grief, not malice or ignorance or even arrogance. Opening our hearts to other species, gardening more selflessly and with humans a bit more in the background (or at least equal to other species) is hard to do -- we think control will save us from further grief and environmental harm, but it will only prolong it.

We seek control by gardening with plants we find pretty but wildlife don't, plants that have no evolutionary history with soil life or fauna around them, let alone other natural processes and communications. We seek control by saying that plants which local wildlife can't use, that play no role in the latent natural ecosystem, are still working ecologically in some way (often because a non native bee is gathering pollen, or a generalist butterfly is gathering nectar, or robins are nesting in the layers of a forsythia shrub border). Too often in garden and landscape design the focus is largely on, or at least disproportionately, the appearance of landscapes for humans -- no matter how beautiful we make them for us, this does not by default guarantee beauty for other species or wild processes.

Our gardens must reveal a new, deeper sense of beauty, one that embraces the concept from more than a single species' perspective. We must allow our mind and hearts to grow and to hold in one total perception of place the web of all life as we celebrate the healing that urban gardens can give us. When we do this, we'll be happier and healthier in the near and long term.

Shortgrass prairie in northwest Nebraska
We can't go back in time, this is true -- but to overcome the emotional anguish of the anthropocene (that term given to the geologic epoch where humans reshape the world), we can't retreat even further from the knowledge of the planet and assume ours is superior; we have to dive headlong into an understanding that we do not know better than all life around us and the evolution that brought the largest abundance and diversity of species the planet has ever seen. We still have so very much to learn, and it's ok that we don't know it now -- maybe that's faith, a belief in a world beyond ourselves (even as that world is all around us). When we humble ourselves in the face of nature we bring ourselves back into nature -- and the novelty will be that we've come back home in peace and health. How can gardens humble us? How can gardens help us overcome environmental grief, despair, and anguish? How can gardens make manageable the overwhelming problems we face due to climate change? The smallest garden is a doorway to the greatest growth needed in all of us -- the world is not for us, but we can be for the world. 


Unknown said...

Its so sad what the himan race has done to the beauty of Earth.

Unknown said...

Human, so=y

Brian T said...

I agree with you, Benjamin. The idea that preserving native plants is simply turning back the clock is a misdirection by those who need to justify their inability to appreciate our regionally distinctive species. I suppose if I had so imprinted on Dutch irises, snapdragons, and peonies to the extent that little bluestem, Penstemons, and Baptisias offended my sense of aesthetics, I too might try to justify my actions.

It comes down to choosing either from plants that are exquisitely tuned components of a local ecosystem, or from exotic plants that have often been bred to sport clown costumes of overblown, doubled, and unusual-colored flowers. And it's not just about aesthetics. We can choose to take as much of our heritage as possible with us into the future, or let it fade into the past. Each gardener carries some of that responsibility.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Joan -- It's so sad we don't see how empowered we are.
Brian -- Again, there you go. :) Right now everyone's showing "the first signs of spring," aka daffodils, crocus, and snowdrops. These are not the first signs of spring unless you live in other parts of the world.

~Tina~ said...

Benjanmin - this article is so timely. I have a small urban backyard and am completely lost. I called a landscaper in for advice. I mentioned that I want native plants and landscape, I am scoffed at...told that these are weeds and I would regret the size and scope of this decision. Told that there is a time and place for use of chemicals and that when my children (aged 3 and 6) get older that spraying the clover and creeping charlies will make me feel better. Why? because I am so concerned about it looking everyone else around me. hmmmm? I am asking for help because I have never in my life been taught, guided, or shared a love for native gardening. My doubts/questions involve concern about the pollen (as I have suffered allergies my whole life and now my oldest son, too)! I see a gem of resources here! I am so fortunate to have found this site. Thank you so much!

Benjamin Vogt said...

Tina -- Welcome! I hope you dumped that landscaper like a hot coal! We can, actually, have "wild" landscapes that look more formal and fit the suburban aesthetic a bit -- doesn't have to be a mess. And boy, spray chemicals to poison the environment and your kids... priceless advice. Sheesh. As for pollen, many plants have sticky / heavy pollen, like goldenrod, that can't go airborne. Grasses and trees are the main players as they are wind-pollinated, not pollinated by insects like so many flowers.