Are you a “New Conservationist”?

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In a recent issue of the New Yorker I learned that the current head of the Nature Conservancy is a “new conservationist” who’s butting heads with “traditional conservationists.” Also termed “eco-pragmatism,” this growing attitude among environmentalists challenges the traditional goal of preserving nature in some pristine condition or returning it to a time when nature was presumed to be untouched by humans, a notion that’s been disproved.  Plus, with climate change, there’s no place on Earth untouched by human intervention.  Pragmatists (like Peter del Tredici) look to the eco-services rendered by nonnative species, rather than hoping for budgets large enough to get rid of them.

But traditionalists are having none of it.   When new conservationist Emma Marris suggested at an ecology conference that we accept some nonnative species as legitimate parts of the ecosystem,” traditionalist E.O. Wilson responded, “Where do you plant that white flag you’re carrying?”

Around the same time I saw Marris mentioned in the New Yorker I noticed her again in Landscape Architecture Magazine making some sensible points in a book review, so I looked into her other writing, only to discover she’d authored this book whose cover looked familiar to me but I’d never read or heard much about in gardening circles.

Marris’s appearances on stage and in interviews, captured on Youtube, have made me even more eager for the arrival of my copy of her book.

Fascinating stuff!  There’s also a trailer for Rambunctious Garden.

Then last weekend the New York Times published “Rethinking the Wild”  about a “heresy echoing through America’s woods and wild places,” tossing out the hands-off approach to wild places in favor of a more “nuanced, flexible approach” that might could include nonnative species and even assisted migration.  The author concludes, “In short, we need to accept our role as reluctant gardeners.”

Speaking of gardening, that’s how we create nature where we are, right? Gardeners are optimistic people, and Marris’s optimism is a refreshing change in the conversation.

Posted by

Susan Harris
on July 11, 2014 at 7:41 am, in the category Gardening on the Planet.

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  1. 6th November 2016 at 1:11 am —

    I reacted the same way, Susan. Felt like a breath of fresh air just wafted through that musty conservationist room.

  2. 18th November 2016 at 12:38 am —

    Thank you for bringing this important conversation to a new audience: Emma’s book is fantastic.

  3. 19th November 2016 at 8:10 am —

    YES YES YES!!! THIS. Susan, thank you so much – THESE are the ideas I have been trying to put forward! To try and pick a time when our environment was pristine and “native”, untouched by the hand of man, and to try and recreate that, is like trying to live in a renaissance faire. These are romantic notions of what we imagine the past was like. We are guilty of the part we play in the “destruction” of our planet, but the fact is that our planet has had many cycles of destruction and rebirth, and our hand in it is also part of nature.
    I never get how natives only activists decide the time that we “turn the clock back” to. Our planet and its rhythms are set on a larger clock – environments change over time and are impacted by climate, insects, avian life, and by people. We are without a doubt able to impact this world faster, and with a potentially more devastating nonchalance, but to respond to this by deciding that we just pick a time when things were “Pristine” and “Native” seems like story telling – we might as well be telling ourselves that “once upon a time, the garden of eden was right here and I am rebuilding it”.
    We need something more nuanced than the current binary of “native gardeners are saving the world and gardeners who utilize non-native palettes are destroying the landscape”
    Too many communities, held in the thrall of this native plant activist movement, are pulling down old stands of healthy, well adapted non-native trees in order to replace them with natives. What utter foolhardiness. We can’t turn back a clock – our climate is changing and what worked in the “olden days” may not be as optimal in the realities of now! But let’s leave the blinders on and go back to when things were better (as if that kind of thinking as EVER worked!)
    I was recommended the book recently – I am eager to dive in!

  4. 20th November 2016 at 11:24 am —

    If the only native plant advocate you know are talking about trying to “turn the clock back” then you need to expand your circle of friends: there are many good reasons to use native plants in a garden that have nothing to do with nostalgia, and most native plant gardeners I know can tell you all about them.

  5. 24th November 2016 at 11:56 am —

    Hear hear.

  6. 24th November 2016 at 12:38 pm —

    You’re doing a great job of reducing what native plant advocates call for and helping create a false black / white binary to encourage even more angst. Who talks about pristine nature? Let’s get to the much deeper issue of how we influence the earth, if that’s a good thing, and what it means to future generations. For me, advocating for native plants has more to do with the psychology / awareness of our role on the planet, and awakening us to the fact that our actions (all of them, not just in gardens) have consequences both positive and negative. We live a very divorced life in our culture from nature, always privileging our wants and desires over any other species. I think if we stopped doing this we’d be a happier and healthier species. So for me, seeing the benefits of plants adapted to my region and that co-evolved to support local wildlife above and below the soil line is one way to connect me to the web we share. It’s deep ecology at work.

  7. 24th November 2016 at 12:40 pm —

    Benjamin, this is a beautifully put and heartfelt comment. And I share your sentiments. At the same time, I have always wondered why it was okay for a seed to be carried by a bird, or on a tide, or the wind, or in the feces of a bear, but not in the pants cuff of a human being. The only differencce, but an important one, is that we are aware. But the awareness and the unwittingness are all a part of nature. We are a part of nature. Yet I do not think that makes us any less responsible. The seed gets moved, the seed gets planted. Then what? We get to understand. And we get to choose. And we get to act. This is part of evolution, too.
    Thank you.

  8. 24th November 2016 at 1:04 pm —

    How much of USA can no longer grow its natives because the environment has been changed by us?

  9. 24th November 2016 at 5:33 pm —

    Love this book. It should be a must read for every gardener.

  10. 25th November 2016 at 7:25 am —

    Let’s see; I’m surrounded by native prairie dotted with two species of native Echinacea; yet in my garden grows ‘PowWow’. Along with some native big bluestem, my garden has clumps of Miscanthus sp., and various commercial cultivars of Panicum. I grow lavenders, nonnative to Kansas, for the bees. Yeah, I believe I could be a “new conservationist.”

  11. 25th November 2016 at 9:34 am —

    I had a real hard time reading most of this book the past winter, but toward the end I began to see where she was coming from and generally agreed with her (after much yelling). I don’t think any gardener or environmentalist would say there’s even an inch of untouched anything anymore, or that we can turn back the clock — climate zones mover north at 3.8′ per day, so what we plant now will be screwed in a decade (I have an upcoming Houzz article on gardening for climate change). Out here on the Plains though, prairie plants are well adapted to climatic swings, so I go with them first.

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Are you a “New Conservationist”?