Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World
by Emma Marris (Bloomsbury, 2011)
Nature is changing. Change is in fact its original condition. Evolution is good. Species are good and more are better. Science is certain on this. Everything and everywhere today is different from the past. Even places like coastal rain forest in the Pacific Northwest are in fact the result of climate change and will presumably change into something else at some point in the future. Our most precious preserves, it turns out, have a long and involved history of human modification, beginning thousands of years ago and reaching up to the conservation era. In many if not most cases, recovering even a semblance of the past is impractical if not impossible. Perhaps more importantly, if the past is an endless succession of changing states, why chose one to be a reference condition—why privilege one ephemeral state over another? If human influence long predates the modern age, why go back to another human landscape? Our fascination with wilderness is a cultural obsession—a fantasy, actually, uniquely modern and American in its origin. One of its unfortunate consequences is that it has led conservationists to espouse the removal of
indigenous peoples from areas like California’s Yosemite Valley in order to create wilderness parks and to waste vast amounts of money and time trying to do the impossible—turn the clock back. There is no
balance of nature, no stable state for a conservationist to hang his or her hat on.
Yosemite is an appropriate reference here because the aspect of the broad business of conservation Emma Marris deals with in Rambunctious Garden is a version of what used to be referred to as “preservation” or, more recently, as restoration or (more recently still) ecocentric restoration. This, however, leaves us without a generic term that includes all management protocols that are designed to conserve ecosystems or attributes of ecosystems with a deliberate disregard for the material interests of humans.
The term “conservation” includes a wide range of activities and philosophies, from the most heartlessly analytical resource economics to taking care of rare orchids and wild places—things that may be of no material benefit to people. As I use the term here, I am especially concerned with the “rare orchids and wild places” end of the conservation spectrum, what used to be called preservation and now includes ecological restoration and perhaps rewilding and the creation of novel ecosystems. This use of the term seems most relevant to Marris’s concerns.
Rambunctious Garden is not a book that reviews either the achievments of conservation (in this sense) or its present situation, but rather a book that delights in highlighting the bad boys and bad girls who dare to think
outside the box of conventional conservation. The boxes Marris allows these miscreants to escape from are in part a fiction, but they are journalistic fictions with a purpose. Every self-styled revolutionary needs a King George. But, unlike a monarchy, conservation agencies today are not monolithic in their actions, and generally surround themselves with bland language about ecosystem health, vitality, resilience and biodiversity—which taken in total means something like, “plants and animals are good”. They avoid tying themselves to any particular reference period, because scientists and critics like Marris have poked at the very idea of such an objective for decades. Still, the label “native” holds unquestionable if not absolute power in conservation. So Marris has a point that is worth considering, even if it doesn’t dominate land management policy in quite the way she supposes.
Just for the record, conservation agencies in the Midwest and elsewhere routinely undertake land management efforts under the rubric of “restoration”. And, yes, the pre-European-contact ecosystem is typically the approximate, though rarely clearly stated, goal of such projects—usually with a lot of ad hoc adjustments and modifications. This is not impossible or foolish. It is hard work. The results are incomplete but satisfying. We are still learning how to do it better. We move incrementally toward a goal that we understand better each year, knowing that we will never reach it. If you appreciate the structure, function, and composition of a particular historical ecosystem, then attempting to restore it is worth the effort. If you think an ecosystem full of common weeds is just as good, then restoration is a waste of time.
Like many critics of restoration, Marris confounds a “pristine” or idyllic past with an important or interesting past, and thereby makes a historic reference seem naive. In fact, I have never heard a manager call restoration “slavish” or the goal of a project a “pristine” ecosystem, probably because reality forces managers to compromise and adjust strategies and goals on an almost daily basis, but also because few if any of them entertain the long-since discredited idea of an ecologically privileged, “pristine” or “original” ecosystem. Marris seems to echo 1491, Charles Mann’s account of the pre-Columbian ecology of the New World in moving from the realization that the pre-contact or pre-modern landscape was a thoroughly lived-in place to the notion that it is patently irrelevant as a source of models and themes for conservation. The past need not be stable, balanced, resilient, healthy, maximally diverse or free of human influence to serve as a valuable reference point for our society’s occupation of land. In fact, it has a crucial role to play in helping us understand who we are as residents of a landscape that really is historical, whether we acknowledge this or not, where we fit in the narrative, and how we can better understand our responsibilities to the land—hardly minor considerations, but ones Marris never acknowledges.
Marris proceeds to investigate a series of sometimes controversial approaches to conservation, first critiquing the standard “wilderness” model and finding it lacking. This is where the book gets both interesting and confusing. She is absolutely right to emphasize in one example after another the pervasiveness of human influence and change before the arrival of modern European civilization. She is right to point out the gross undervaluing of the ecological impact of indigenous peoples all around the world, a misunderstanding or mis-representation that seriously impairs our own thinking about our place in nature both as a species and as modern and post-modern citizens of the land community. In this she follows not only Mann’s 1491 (2005), but also Stephen Pyne’s Fire in America (1997), and Tim Flannery’s The Eternal
Frontier (2001) to name only a few authors who have presented the same thesis in somewhat more detail. Her treatment of indigenous influence seems to me overstated and ecologically strained, but her point is well taken. And she is right to pinpoint one of the sources of this undervaluing in a preference by natural historians and ecologists for studying “unsullied” nature, though this has changed markedly in recent years. She in fact leaves few stones unturned in her effort to disabuse us of any idea that nature was Edenic, that John Muir’s wilderness ever existed, or that we could ever find or achieve such a condition of nature. In this Marris does conservation and her readers a service. She is not the first to say this, but she does it well enough.
Yet, there are two issues I would bring up: the first is technical and the second philosophical. First, Marris and Flannery (2001) and many others dating back to Paul Martin’s classic work (1967) point out, probably correctly, that
humans were implicated in the extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna, not simply in North and South America, but in Australia, Madagascar, the Polynesian islands, and elsewhere. When human populations come in contact with a new set of food resources, they typically grow rapidly, overexploit the resource and degrade it. But this raises some questions. Why did the megafauna survive in Africa? How did bison, moose, and elk survive the Holocene in what everyone seems to agree was a densely populated North America? Similarly, how did kangaroos survive 40,000 years of living with aboriginal Australians. We are told that their long familiarity with people allowed them to evolve new behaviors to avoid the hunter.
This is where the argument quietly shifts from an interpretation of archeological facts to one of evolutionary speculation. Fair enough. But in attributing the survival of kangaroos and bison entirely to the Darwinian responses of these prey species to predation, Marris discounts the likelihood that cultural adaptations by humans played at least as large a role in maintaining viable, huntable populations of these species as did behavioral adaptations by prey species, Since human cultural evolution can proceed hundreds to thousands of times more rapidly than the biological evolution of large animals, are we to believe that the development of new hunting technologies and new modes of social organization could not outpace the Darwinian evolution of new bison behaviors? Yet Marris and others uncritically repeat this fragment of biological determinism, apparently without noticing that this is nothing less than a prescription for ecological despair. Does it really make sense to discount the importance of human adaptability and, at least implicitly, to count on our prey to solve our environmental problems for us? And if so, then aren’t we conservationists really wasting our time?
The second issue is that scientific realism by itself has its limits in conservation. As Marris points out, change is constant and inevitable. Certainly. But this leads, in strict logic, to the conclusion that every species of plant and animal and every ecosystem is doomed to change—that is, ultimately, to extinction. Besides that, according to Marris, the past is tainted with human influence, and virtually impossible to recover. And, equally clearly, though Marris doesn’t say it, the modern American landscape proves that a high level of biotic diversity is not necessary for maintaining a productive human society with healthy people—just take a look at landscapes in places like, well, Illinois, where millions of people like me live and work. So, if the past state of nature is irrelevant, if a rich diversity of life is not required to meet human needs, and if all species and ecosystems are ephemeral residents of the planet, then why is conservation even a good idea? This is the 400 pound gorilla of which Marris describes in great detail the left foot–the naivety of our conservation rhetoric–but fails to see the whole animal. That whole animal is far more fearsome that Marris realizes and could gobble her up, along with all of the ecologists she interviews!
Marris follows the time-worn tradition in conservation of taking for granted the value of attributes such as biodiversity and wildness. She also follows tradition in not justifying these values, a tradition that was well established by the time of John Muir and continues with authors like Marris and Caroline Fraser (in her Rewilding the World (2009)). Why are they valuable? Valuable for what and for whom? These values are themselves unconsciously imported from a conception of nature outside of us and before us (meaning us ecologists). Diversity is mostly buzzy, crawly, creepy, stuff that no one other than a few biologists cares about, or plants that all look alike, the ecological importance of which has often been overstated. Ditto our wilderness. If we are going to question Thoreau’s “Wildness,” Muir’s wilderness, Teddy Roosevelt’s wilderness, we need to question our own—call it what you will. Wildness means discomfort, mosquito bites, malaria. Why should a society of people who are largely disconnected from nature care about the wilderness of conservationists? On the answer to that question hangs the future of the conservation of much of the earth’s diversity of life. Rambunctious is a book for people already in the fold, the ecologists Marris interviews for the book—those who never ask the question. A question people outside the fold, quite rightly, ask all the time.
Human Basis for Conservation
My point is that Marris correctly locates a problem in the conservation movement. We attribute values to states of nature according to a culturally embedded concept of nature as wilderness. This attribution, however, is based on ideas about stability, balance, succession, and climax that ecologists have largely discredited over the past few decades. Marris builds her case on the “new ecology’s” insistence that change is the only constant, that ecosystems are inherently unstable and unpredictable, and so sooner or later will be invaded by alien species and transformed, as new species arrive and old ones are extirpated. Fair enough. The problem is that she doesn’t seem to realize that this criticism, taken it to its logical conclusion, undermines the entire conservation enterprise, not simply naïve attempts at restoring the past. If everything in nature—species as well as ecosystems—is temporary, then why, apart from human interests, take the trouble to conserve elements of nature other than those of interest to ourselves?
Why for instance should we devalue historical ecosystems and not historical species? Both come and go in the history of the earth. Marris never really asks or answers this question, other than to imply that species are stable and ecosystems unstable. In actual fact, both are unstable and both are stable, depending on the time scales to which you refer. We choose to think about nature on time scales of years, decades, and centuries in which species are typically stable entities. Why not Darwin’s time scales of millions to hundreds of millions of years, in which species naturally just come and go. How can we claim to value nature for its own sake—presumably as it is in itself—yet choose to think about it on such very human time scales. The result of these choices is that we arbitrarily attach value to species, either ignore or devalue historical ecosystems, and make of conservation a species-counting numbers game, which puts scientists and technicians in charge. They can mix and match, translocate, relocate, introduce, reintroduce, rewild whatever and wherever they choose—and along the way produce endless novel arrangements. This would appear to be conservation paradise for Marris and the scientists she interviews.
The problem is that we have created a conservation that ignores its source in human existence and caring. People care for the beauty and diversity of life because nature has already taken up residence inside of them, and they in turn spend their lives searching for a home in nature. For most of us, this begins in childhood, and from that point onward all of our actions with respect to nature emerge from this holistic relationship of mutual belonging. Only much later do we learn to cover up the feelings of affection and belonging with philosophical terms like “intrinsic value”, in which we reduce and distort the relationship to a set of values attributed to natural objects. This act of reduction and distortion is how we produce a conservation detached from place and history, free-floating in a sea of abstractions like wildness, health, integrity, or resilience. Marris presents a logical endpoint for this brand of place-less, ahistorical conservation. It is conservation for true believers—those who never question how they got there.
Yet, right when you think that Marris is against historical baselines and the whole concept of restoration, she makes an abrupt shift and advocates in a very entertaining chapter for projects that attempt to restore the late Pleistocene megafauna to temperate European and North American ecosystems. One such “Pleistocene rewilding” would involve introducing cheetahs, elephants, lions, and camels from Africa and Asia to the American Great Plains. Perhaps this is the reason she presents a maximal estimate of indigenous human influence, to make the case not for ignoring history but for devaluing the pre-European settlement idyll and going back even further to a time unsullied by any kind of human influence. This is of course restoration of a sort and uses a historical baseline, but the use of non-native animals in a “restoration” makes it edgy stuff—edgy but unconvincing.
What on earth is the conservation value of fencing off large areas of the Great Plains and introducing African lions and cheetahs and Asian camels to mix with mule deer, pronghorn antelope, and coyotes? Does conservation in the modern
age need such publicity stunts to attract money and public attention? Whatever we find is unlikely to tell us much about the Great Plains of 12,000 years ago, before the megafaunal extinctions. It seems that “rewilding” (see Fraser 2009 for more on that) begins with our conception of “wildness” and then tries to remake a landscape to fit that idea. Evidently a chunk of the American plains is wilder with lions (from the thoroughly peopled landscape of Africa) than without, even though it is we who would add the African lions, maintain the population, and intervene, no doubt frequently, to resolve conflicts between humans and lions.
I am reminded of Thoreau’s remark that “the sound of a bugle in a summer night . . . which by its wildness, to speak without satire, reminds me of the cries emitted by wild beasts in their native forests” (Thoreau 1862). Wildness is a very anbiguous idea, much harder to be clear about than, say, “the past”.
Aren’t the scientists who advocate rewilding indulging in the same fantasy of restoring (or “rewilding”) their own “pristine” past, elsewhere criticized by Marris, when they dream of going back to “the age when nature lived wild and large”? The likely outcome will be that we will find out that lions eat mule deer given the chance in a crazy game park/outdoor zoo that has little to do with the conservation of species and landscapes in Africa, Asia, or North America. On this point, I agree with the Rubensteins and their colleagues (2005), who criticize rewilding on the technical grounds that it doesn’t actually achieve the objectives of conservation. But more importantly, the question begs us to reconsider the objectives themselves. We run away from history, proclaiming it a “straightjacket”, and then embrace it in altered language—we rewild instead of restore; we “slavishly” accept the biodiversity of the past as good, but not the landscapes or ecosystems; or we label a landscape curiously like its putative past as “healthy” or “natural”, and then embrace health or naturalness and reject history. Species and ecosystems are both ephemeral artifacts of the evolution of life. This is what I mean when I question the reasons we give for conservation. Pleistocene rewilding of North America with African animals seems to be an answer to a question I would never ask. Obviously, others disagree, but arguing about it without resolving the basic question of why we do conservation in the first place means that the argument is little more than a test of political will.
Rambunctious Garden goes on to discuss assisted migration—a hot topic in today’s climate change debate; exotic species—questioning our across-the-board animosity toward them; novel ecosystems that arise as an unintended or indirect consequence of human activities—as you might guess by now, pointing out their conservation value—and finally ecosystems designed by scientists and technicians to solve specific environmental problems. All-in-all, it is a reasonable set of examples, chosen to highlight the many facets of a bad-boy ecology that rejects the pre-European idyll.
A few more reactions: Frankly, Marris’s antagonism toward restoration, continued in the chapter on novel ecosystems, made me want to scream! Take for example the sentence, “More than the sickly ecosystems nursed by park rangers…” (which I take to be communities of native plants and animals under restoration), “novel ecosystems are really wild self-willed land with lots of evolutionary potential.” The fact that we don’t know what’s going to happen turns out here to be good and not bad, because “unlike predictable successional patterns of many familiar ecosystems, novel ecosystems are headed off in unknown directions.” The unknown is good? Sure, up to a point. But at some point this begins to look like a prescription for anything goes. Are we prepared to say that climate change and ocean acidification are good because we don’t know what’s going to happen? Because they are likely to produce a lot of novel ecosystems, unfamiliar successional patterns, and unknown outcomes? Hmmm.
Again: “If you are interested in preserving evolution without human guidance, then look no further than novel ecosystems.” This sentence makes no sense on several scores. First, evolution has been going fine for 3.5 billion years and will be going fine in another 3.5 billion. You needn’t worry about it. Nothing we do or don’t do will change that. A billion years from now, the earth will have a variety of creatures we cannot hope to imagine—regardless of what we do or don’t do today. And, I think we’re mistaken when we claim that the anthropogenic weed field we maintain on one side of the road produces “evolution without human guidance”, whereas the prairie restoration on the other side of the road produces a contrived and inferior grade of evolution. I’m a bit confused. If we intervene to prevent extinctions, we are contaminating evolution. If we don’t, and some species go extinct, then we are also interfering. Hmmm.
One more time: In speaking about the benefits of a hands-off management approach that allows native and exotic species to interact freely, Marris writes, “Could we hope to do any better than nature in managing and arranging our natural world for a warmer, more populous future.” Non-intervention management is in fact exactly what conservation agencies and organizations“did” to the vast majority of their natural areas up until the 1980s and beyond, and the results were, according to most field people, a disaster. It is true, as Marris claims, that exotic species have produced few species extinctions, but they have produced a plague of species extirpations, and it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to link widespread extirpation to eventual extinction.
In the last two chapters, Marris adopts a conciliatory attitude and envisions a landscape shaped by a variety of conservation approaches, including traditional wilderness preservation.The problem is that by this point she has discredited conservation tactics—such as restoration—that she’d need to realize this
vision. Her idea that “parks should be surrounded by areas without much development, and these wildest landscapes should be connected to one another. . . . big areas connected by corridors” is quite attractive, but only from a conventional point of view, meaning that the resulting complexes have a structure and composition that would allow a wide diversity of animal, invertebrate, vertebrate, and plant populations to migrate between “parks”. In many—and ultimately in all—situations, that will entail an ongoing program of restoration. Yet, Marris has spent much of the book deriding that very conservation “straightjacket,” which would be needed to maintain vegetation that would allow plants and insects to migrate. Elk, we may suppose, will traverse miles of exotic grasses, but most native grassland plant species and host-specific insects won’t. Marris presents a litany of conservation projects around the country from hydro seeding native grassland mixes along highways in Hawaii to conservation- oriented small farms to green roofs in Hoboken, New Jersey, all of which strike the conservationist as positive and hopeful, but hopeful for what? What is the purpose of the conservation she proposes?
After finishing the book, I remain disappointed that I could find no consistent definition of “conservation” or a consistent set of values or rationale that might underlie conservation efforts. I’m sorry, but “biodiversity” and “wildness” offer little satisfaction. Both are difficult to define, and neither is clearly articulated or justified. Perhaps the definitions and values are there and I simply couldn’t find them.
Maybe we should read the book to learn about a conservation that is many things to many people, unified only by an undefined and undefinable affection for nature among many well-intentioned people. We can count on that affection to erupt at many times and places with many disparate voices and social realities, and this will result in a patchwork of conservation efforts that at first glance have nothing in common and no consistent underlying values save the originating affection. Rather than being alternately confused and disappointed, as I was for much of the book, we should accept, if not warmly embrace, this diversity of goals and approaches—reserving the right to disagree on any particular project. In other words, we should in the end avoid conservation dogma, encourage new and innovative approaches, be willing to take risks and do outrageous things, attempt the impossible, embrace the weed field in its place and the carefully restored oak savanna next door, elephants in Texas and orchids in the prairie, cryogenically preserve frog DNA, and let the dandelions grow in our front yards. It makes me dizzy and more than a little dissatisfied, but I must admit I was affected by the book.
Perhaps what Rambunctious Garden describes is not so much what conservation should be (as a product of technical/scientific consensus) as what it is and will be in a diverse liberal society, where individual scientists and interest groups bring to nature very different conceptions of self, nature, value, past, future, wants, needs, and so on. As long as we fail—or are unable–to seriously discuss the basic reasons for doing conservation, some acts of conservation will simply be unintelligible to other conservationists. Those are my words, not Marris’s. Readers will have to decide for themselves whether that is good enough.
Flannery, Tim. 2001. The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and its Peoples. Atlantic Monthly Press.
Fraser, Caroline. 2009. Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution. Henry Holt and Company.
Mann, Charles. 2006. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Vintage Books; 1st edition
Martin P. S. (1967). “Prehistoric overkill”. In Martin, P.S., Wright, H.E.. Pleistocene extinctions: The search for a cause. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.
Pyne, Steven 1997. Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire. University of Washington Press; 1st Edition
Rubenstein, Dustin R., Daniel I. Rubenstein, Paul W. Sherman, and Thomas A. Gavin. 2006. Pleistocene Park: Does re-wilding North America represent sound conservation for the 21st century? Biological Conservation 132, 232 –238
Thoreau, Henry D. 1862 “Walking” in The Essays of Henry D. Thoreau. 2002. North Point Press; First Edition.