Grist.com wrote that Rambunctious Garden is “Potentially the most optimistic and controversial work about the future of nature to appear in years.” I don’t know about the optimistic part—pages of the book left me feeling utterly deflated, but I whole-heartedly agree with the controversial part. Reading Rambunctious Garden is akin to embarking on an intellectual and philosophical rumination over what comprises the concepts of nature, wilderness, and conservation. The ground Emma Marris covers, figuratively, is a fertile landscape fraught with high-stakes debates about how to preserve, conserve, and manage our natural world.
Marris is a talented and gifted writer. She seamlessly links one idea to the next with grace and skill. She presents issues and then pokes around each one to expose all sides. The book is thoroughly researched and wonderfully organized as it leads the reader through increasingly complicated conservation conundrums and scenarios. Every single chapter challenged my thinking about how we classify and define what is natural, what’s worth saving, why, and how to got about it. However, I must admit, I began reading with the expectation of spending some time communing with, well, nature. But this book dwells less on experiential factors and more on the meta: it dives deeply into the thinking and philosophical frameworks that undergird the conservation of nature today.
Marris first asks the reader to redefine nature and our ideas about pristine places—an exercise that I found valuable. I live on the eastern outskirts of Asheville, where it’s a relatively short hike from manicured neighborhood lawns to wooded trails leading up to the Blue Ridge Parkway and into the Pisgah National Forest and Black Mountains (which contains the highest point in the East). Black bears and coyotes are just as apt to turn up in my backyard as are groundhogs, red-tailed hawks, morning doves, and starlings. In my eyes, the land here is not so much bifurcated into “developed” and “wild” as it is on a continuum from “disturbed” to “less disturbed.” But why do I think of it this way? Likely, because I implicitly have an expectation that even the conserved land surrounding my valley was disturbed by pioneers when the East was first settled by Europeans and their descendants several centuries ago—and that it’s never been quite the same since.
Would I see the land differently if the forests around me were restored to how they were pre-European settlement? Marris exposes how this question gets at the idea of whether there is a “correct” baseline for every ecosystem. Is there a specific state, or range of states, that systems are supposed to be in? Some conserved areas are managed with this in mind; managers attempt to restore the species compositions, or ecosystem processes, to how things were at the time of European settlement. Marris challenges the underpinnings of restoration ecology by detailing the problems of using an arbitrary historical date for management. One issue is that most ecological systems are not stable over historical (or geological) time, and so managing for a static time period isn’t always the best strategy. It doesn’t allow for ecological change or resilience. And in the face of climate change, it may miss the point entirely. She discusses how humans have altered nearly “every centimeter of the globe,” even ancient forests—places held sacred by conservationists. By extending the influence of humans upon the environment back tens of thousands of years, she shows the fallacy of concepts such as “virgin forests” and “pristine wilderness.” These constructs imply that humans never altered specific ecosystems, and they strengthen the parable that an environment absent of the human footprint is the holy grail conservation ideal. But what if such places never truly existed?
The left-field concepts of radical rewilding and Pleistocene rewilding are also picked over … ideas I’ve personally found bordering on the elitist side of absurd. Here, Marris exposes the paradox of humans managing a landscape to be truly wild, as if humans had never touched it. Even if the systems become process-driven and people no longer have to manage them, they are still man-made. “Is the result a wilderness?” She asks. Or is it “A garden about wilderness?” Great questions.
She then guides readers through a deep discussion about the controversial technique of assisted migration and how that technique’s outcomes will need to be integrated with how we categorize species as native, naturalized, or invasive. (If we move a plant from one mountaintop to another, might it become invasive in its new home? Would it matter if it had been saved from extinction? What if it causes another species to become extinct or imperiled?) She points out that commercially-valuable species, and those favored for ornamental aesthetics, are no-brainers when it comes to being moved on purpose to help them adapt to a changing climate. But for the lesser species, the bugs and pollinators and microbes and dowdy plants that make an ecosystem hum along, will there be the cash and political will to move them too? Probably not.
To report this book, Marris traveled to various destinations: Hawaii, Australia, Yellowstone National Park, Gallatin National Forest (Montana), Bialowieza Primeval Forest (Poland-Belarus border), the Netherlands, and Vancouver Island (Canada). She visited many field sites where ecologists and conservationists have active projects. Yet the naturalistic descriptions of these places are relatively light; I hungered for deeper details to create an ecological sense of place in these far-flung locales.
I found the questions raised in this book fascinating from an academic or hypothetical position, but when you bring many of them down to the level of a local or regional landscape there’s a real danger of leading people to conclude “Why bother?” If we shouldn’t manage for an arbitrary historical date, why bother? If helping species move to a new habitat where they may fare better in a warmer world causes shifts in local systems there such that the moved species may be considered invasive, why bother? If humans have changed things so irrevocably, then why bother trying to ameliorate environmental ills? Only because solutions will benefit humans? I think this may be why some conservationists took great issue with Rambunctious Garden: it points out the problems with the methods they value. The conservation movement has a deep and chronic problem in getting people to care, the last thing we want is to make it easy for people to decide a project’s simply not worth their time or money.
Another oft-repeated criticism I read of the book was that it seemed to be pushing conservationists to embrace weeds and invasive species as the new norm. One reviewer wrote: “By moving the goalposts to vacant city lots as an acceptable desired future condition of the landscape, she implicitly, if not explicitly, provides cover for all manner of environmental degradation.” I’m going to go out on a limb here and offer that Marris wasn’t saying conservation should begin and end in vacant city lots. I think the broader point that she was making is that ecologists and conservationists should be more inclusive of the types of systems they study, and that by moving humans into the realm of what is considered natural an entire new category of what’s considered “natural” opens up. In other words, my take is that she’s advocating for wild places to be conserved (as they have been) but also for people to begin to see, and cherish, the nature that is present in their urban and human-altered environments: the weeds, trees, insects and birds and that have adapted to living with us.
The irony here, of course, is that I’ve just published a book entirely about a species that never really learned to live with us: the red wolf. At the broadest level, my book details the conservation challenges of trying to keep red wolves on earth today, in an environment that has changed fundamentally from the time in which they arose. And here is where the chorus of “why bother” kicks in, and I have a tough time reckoning some of what Marris wrote about with what I feel in my gut. There were times when it seemed to me that she was saying we should just let some species go if they are not of the type that can adapt to living with us, or adapt to climate change. I’m not sure, to be honest, if this is what she was saying because she stayed true to her reporting roots and didn’t appear to take much of a subjective stand one way or the other. What I wanted to hear throughout the book was that humanity has a moral and ethical obligation to attempt to save species which our actions have harmed. But I didn’t hear that.
Although Marris offers a grab bag of conservation goals in the concluding chapter, she spent the majority of the book discussing their pitfalls and fallacies. This left me feeling a bit out of sorts when I reached the last page. After taking me on a jaunt through her rambunctious jungle of ideas, where exactly did we end up? I think this may be another reason some readers have been critical of this book; however I don’t fault her for this rough landing spot because Marris was simply brutally honest and objective about the state of conservation today. If you have the eyes of an ecologist, or a nature lover, then it’s often spirit-splittingly difficult to find inspiration for the future we are headed for. The strength of this book is that Emma Marris has provoked a deep, detailed, and necessary dialogue about where conservation has been, and where it is headed.