The Forest We All Know

Book: Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, 2011

Author: Emma Marris

Among many things, this well-written, forward-looking book lets you reclaim your favorite unkempt vacant lot and proclaim the weeds and wildflowers there as Nature with a capital N. Yes, weeds are Nature too. Maybe you already knew. But Marris spells it out – sometimes super beautifully, always with responsible, deep research – offering invasives such as Brazilian pepper trees or second growth stands of pine the same unabashed reverence normally reserved for such hoary national majesties as Mt. Rainier, Yellowstone and Ken Burns. Yes, big mountains are sublime. But so is the nettle sneaking toward your window box.

And just to emphasize – Finally! Finally someone stands up and debunks this whole ease people seem to have with expressing their intolerance for invasives. Turns out, no surprise, that we waste millions trying to stamp out plants that are from away, or are too adept at adapting. And for what? Often it’s to recreate landscapes from the past that are long gone or were never original to begin with.

The majority of conservationist ecologists, it seems, are a lot like architectural preservationists. Nostalgia for a purer past tends to simplify the landscape into a series of independent – and static – origin stories. Which does at least two disservices. First, it prevents the narrative from being about a dynamic, interconnected, ever-changing system. And second, by ignoring the ongoing improvisations of nature (and of architecture, and of everything for that matter), conservationist and preservationist narratives often prevent the beautiful and strange fruit that emerges – the new cultural meanings – when past and present are allowed the latitude to converge.

But this sort of improvisationist ethos, and this sort of Alice Walker idea of learning to love what is common as much as what is rare is only the beginning of Rambunctious Garden. Really, what Marris is shooting for, is for us to reimagine our role in nature. To become active participants, rather than awed spectators or mendacious polluters. And yes, we’ve polluted it. To the extent that many American rivers at one time were spontaneously bursting into flames on their way to the sea. Like Biblical anecdotes. And even if the fires have died down, we seem hell-bent on cooking the planet. But Marris is wanting to get at our individual connection to nature. What if we got real? What if we shook off our serious, all-too-serious alienation from the natural world and ran into it? What would we find?

Marris takes us there, to people who are exploding the tired, polluted mythologies. She follows scientists who are mapping the shifting ranges of trees and the butterflies that procreate in those trees, trying to ascertain the differing abilities of each to respond to shifting climates and what that might mean for both. She chronicles the work of Seattle groups along the Duwamish River as they try to heal a polluted waterway, balancing the needs of osprey habitat with car crushing plants. She roams an improvised sanctuary on the outskirts of Amsterdam that maintains an ancient reconstructed European grassland, one that is equal parts homage and pragmatic improvisation. It’s an exhilarating ride.

The ground out there is ancient. And we’ve trashed a lot of it. But with what we have, we can still make it wild.

http://www.emmamarris.com/rambunctious-garden/

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