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. Continue reading