Friday, January 13, 2017

Native Plant Activism & Social Justice

In most cases, people will tend to believe what they already believe, unfortunately. A core part of my forthcoming book explores the psychology of climate change and environmental issues, which I link up to what often becomes a very heated, very polarized conversation around native plants. I postulate that one reason the native plant conversation becomes either / or relates to how our minds have evolved to process new information as animals, and especially how new information tends to increase risks on our perception of self and our belief about cosmic order. Any time we face conflicting information our brains immediately put up defenses to protect us; any new perspective threatens our carefully balanced sense of right and wrong, our social and cultural beliefs, and our very ethics (and ethics that can't evolve fast enough with technology or climate change). I think the real mystery is how some people can quickly embrace new ideas, analyze, process, be open, and then if necessary reorder their beliefs and cultural viewpoints.

Where am I going? Several times over the past year I've heard folks profess that Doug Tallamy -- native plant and pollinator researcher guru extraordinaire -- has toned back his viewpoint at speaking engagements. In particular, he's become more open to mixing exotic plants and natives in built landscapes, like urban gardens. I don't know if this is true, as it's been years since I heard Doug speak, and I don't know how much of this new change is filtered through folks who previously decried everything Doug said about native plants because, perhaps, it was threatening to their worldview, profession, culture, et cetera. What I do know is that it seems, from my small data set of individuals, that the more Doug apparently opens up his hard-line stance toward using native plants only, previous critics are now pointing to him as a reputable source. I find this shift psychologically fascinating, and would like to learn how to exploit it.

The power of Doug's message has always been one rooted in an activism based on a shift in our ethics, and I think his audience has always been the more progressive regular Joes among us (I'm not one of those Joes, or Janes). Even while his research has asked the horticulture industry to evolve, and they've listened in some ways, I believe his audience has always been homeowners -- and I think this is still where the greatest power resides. It's homeowners who are going to put pressure on the green and landscape design industry to build sustainable wildlife gardens in urban areas, and this sort of grassroots mobilization has always been what's worked -- from other environmental issues to classism to racism to sexism. No doubt we need large design firms to step up and give us moving, functional examples to emulate at home, and that we need tons of them right now, but I'm not yet sure how large their role will be from a cultural shift perspective (this isn't a knock, I just don't know because the majority of new urban areas are still designed in old school methods).

It's my hope, and my goal in the way I've organized my book, to re-energize and go a step further in cultivating a bluestem roots progressivism in garden design, and one that sees itself using the tools of other social and environmental justice movements. It's through such action that we learn to think more critically and begin to challenge and remold our animalistic brains that struggle with the long view, as well as the compassionate view for others -- and other species. I may fail horribly, though, and I can accept that if it happens. I will certainly turn on some folks and turn off others as I seek to complicate, invigorate, and push the garden conversation onward. But I hope that together we can all finally leap into a garden ethic that radically reunites us with the world again, because the real world is quickly drowning in our disconnection with it. It will take all of us together to bring wildness back into our everyday lives as well as in wilder places beyond our everyday lives. It will take homeowners, architects, nurseries, municipalities, federal or state government, and activists / artists whose job it is to make us feel uncomfortable and to speak up for the voiceless in our culture.


Anonymous said...

I feel bad saying this, but I am seeing the possible value of some non-natives in my urban/suburban garden outside Boston. For example, the skinny hellstrip area that is pummeled by snow/salt, dog needs, and filled with weeds and Norway maple roots (from the tree over which we fought with the town to get taken down).

I tried planting what I thought would be tough natives: butterfly weed, common milkweed, coreopsis, rudbeckia--the only thing that seems to survive are the non-native sedum that the previous owner had planted in other areas of the yard, and which I moved to the hellstrip. Well, better than weedy grass, it shouldn't be invasive, it's covering ground as Claudia West would want...

but I do so value your message, and am afraid about the irreversible harm done to our environment.

Brian T said...

One of the most environmentally damaging habits of gardeners is to treat the outdoors like the indoors. Based on a monotonous “carpet” of lawn or mulch, plants are placed like pieces of furniture. This also compels them to be overly fussy with mowing, raking, and trimming. It’s not hard to understand why so few real communities of plants and animals are created. Compared to getting gardeners to abandon the plant-as-furniture/ornament/souvenir mindset to instead focus on creating appealing vegetation, the use of natives seems almost inevitable as their availability at nurseries increases.

Regarding the natives vs. exotics debate, even though I plant and specify natives almost exclusively for ornamental and open space gardens, my vegetable garden is entirely exotic, as are many of my fruiting trees and shrubs, just because that’s what’s necessary to produce reasonable quantities of food that I will eat. I’m not a fan of dogmatic, purist ideology, but that doesn’t mean I won’t continue to vigorously push natives when there is no compelling reason not to do so.

Brian T said...

@anonymous: Just because you planted full sun plants under a tree known for its dense shade and surface roots, doesn't mean that natives will not grow there. The great thing about natives is that they exhibit a much wider range of adaptability than the normal palette of exotics. It could well be that something like Pennsylvania sedge, bottlebrush grass, columbines, and thimbleweed - plants adapted to growing under trees - would have done fine.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your comments Brian. Sorry I wasn't clear -- the Norway did get removed, the roots just add to the difficulty of planting there, but there is no shade.

The issue is the hellstrip is an example of an unnatural site, a skinny area between concrete sidewalk and roadside and is exposed to lots of pollution and salt. I have lots of varieties of natives in my actual yard; and actually the wild senna from the garden did seed in the hellstrip--so that's one thing that planted itself and made it. But--I can't leave something that tall and bulky there. So, there are lots of constraints. My point was just that, given all these issues, why not the sedum--it works, it's not too tall, and it's free.

Brian T said...

@anonymous: Sounds like a tough site. The success of wild senna is encouraging since it's not all that drought resistant. Although sedum covers the ground, it probably doesn't seem like much of a garden. I've never tried anything in a hellstrip but lawn, though there's a substantial hellstrip gardening movement, judging by the number of books and webpages. Best of luck gardening in the ultimate urban challenge.

Tara Dillard said...

Why so much faith in 'another' group to Be-The-Change-You-Want-To-See ?

You obviously have a good brain, knowledge, not afraid of hard work. What is scaring you?

Channel Eleanor Roosevelt, Rachel Carson, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Martin Luther King, High Line, for starters.

One Riot, One Ranger. Why not start there? Would love for you to succeed. Maybe it is exactly that, YOU. Change your thinking, change the world. Depend on others? Go. Be Who You Are. It is enough. The more we go inward the more we outwardly connect.

Selfishly, want to know what you think of natives in an area that has zero remaining of 'native' for dozens of miles: soil, canopy, understory, meadows, weather/climate, micro/macro-biome. How do you suggest eradicating thousands of miles of invasives? Cost & long-term effectiveness? Until you do, no native will grow there. Nor the native fauna with it, nor the native soil biome. SNAFU, yes?

How much do you go outside the garden realm to lecture? International corporations, businesses, nursing homes, large apartment communities, the timber industry, you get the idea. Preaching to the choir?

You don't mention the deadly divide of agriculture vs horticulture. Europe never separated them, didn't have the post WWII boom USA experienced. What are you doing to bring agriculture/horticulture together? Different angle, same topic. Most often it is the side or back door entry, bringing in the most success. And, I wish for you success.

You're trying to change people. Perhaps try changing hearts. Same end, different means. Go wider than binary thinking with natives.

Thank you for all you do. And, hoping for your big huge success.

Garden & Be Well, XOT

Anonymous said...

How interesting. Often when discussing native plants with people (most people I know are not gardeners) I find myself surprised at the resistance I meet (again, mostly from non-gardeners). I never understood how people who don't garden much seem to jump to conclusions about what I'm talking about (politics) instead of showing interest in the specific topic I'm discussing. I see no reason why democrats & republicans & those in between can't all care about gardening. So I would say, yes, I think it is a feeling of defensiveness they experience when they hear me bringing up something new. It's difficult to discuss gardening these days with non-gardeners and keep the conversation from going straight to climate-change conversations. Also, I think sometimes when you complain about plants that are not native, other people who have emotional links to those plants (such as a grandmother whose garden consisted of mostly non-natives) they might feel (not think, but feel) that you're 'attacking' their grandmother. Frustrating, but of course everyone is like that to a degree, it's just natural. However, it's very exciting that slowly I believe people are coming around to the idea of natives! Slowly but surely :) Very excited about this new book you're writing!

Benjamin Vogt said...

All -- I'm sorry for being away from this wonderful discussion! My book is due in 10 days and it's cRaZy. I want to say that EVERYTHING you guys are talking about -- native plant psychology / resistance, no native food plants, and much of what Tara points out (esp ag) -- is fully explored in my book. So I'm glad we all are feeling the same pulse, so to speak. I don't see native plants vs. exotics as binary thinking, not at all; obviously just saying "native vs. exotic" creates an obvious syntactical binary, but that's all it is, and simply for the sake of brevity. We have to see how plants are not just for us, and once we extend our empathy and then compassion beyond to other species, and even other humans now and into the future, we'll see how it's not binary -- more like billion-ary. Our minds are evolved to process things as only black and white as a survival tactic, but in this kind of exploitative-based culture, we have to quickly force our ethics to evolve and catch up to our manipulation and devaluing of people, place, and animals. It's not easy, and it nothing worthwhile ever is.