Tuesday, February 27, 2018

“A garden is an ideology as sure as voting or painting or writing and loving”

Book review: A new garden ethic, by Benjamin Vogt.

Nature is slowly invading our man-made landscapes and even our cities, and I find it a very interesting evolutionary process to observe. But do we have to re-create some kind of pristine wilderness in our gardens?  

I am an avid gardener and I am intrigued by the relationship between gardens and nature and the difference between how we tend gardens and how we farm. These days, it is not very controversial to claim that lawns are biologically poor and rather represent a way for modern industrial civilization to impose its ways on nature instead of bringing nature to us. In A new garden ethic Benjamin Vogt takes this a bit longer by advocating that we should build our gardens with native plants. He writes:

Image: front cover“Native plant gardens bring the places we escape to on weekends or annual vacations into every moment; they make us part of the global language again by rooting us into a community”. Vogt calls for a new ethic, quite similar to the ethics of the land of Aldo Leopold who believed that direct contact with the natural world was crucial in shaping our ability to extend our ethics beyond our own self-interest. Leopold famously wrote: “When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” I think Leopold wanted people to involve with the wilderness a lot more while Vogt wants to bring the wilderness to the people in the cities.

Vogt argues that “our built landscapes should be as close to 100 percent native plants as possible”. And he goes so far as to claim that we threaten values such as health, freedom and compassion by mixing plants with no evolutionary history with one another or the local fauna. He has a rather radical view on how wild a garden should be: “When I look out of my window into the garden, I don’t see myself as the instigator or even creator. In the end I hope to not even see myself at all”. It is not all clear for my why I would even make a garden under those premises.

I guess my view of gardens is shaped by the fact that I am a grower that lives in the country side in Sweden and not in a city in North America. Being a grower means that I use non-native plants all the time. Basically no other crops than black currants are native to Sweden. The surrounding forest, the lake, the wetlands etc. is quite natural so there is no shortage of interaction with nature for me. In my garden I do use some native plants, but there is little point in recreating something that exist fifty meters away. I value and cherish border zones that mix plants and life from different types of landscapes. I blur the border between garden and forest and put some non-native shrubs and plants into the forest. I mix the cultivation of my food with flowers I like etc. I keep some non-native invasive species, such as the North American wild lupines, at bay but I don’t try to exterminate them.

Of course, I can see much value in bringing in a prairie landscape into cities in the USA. Cities in Sweden also establish “natural meadows” with native plants. That is all excellent and it can contribute to increased ecological literacy. So I am with Vogt here. Meanwhile I am a quite sceptical to the claim that this will be transforming to the degree that Vogt claims.  

Further, I have some hesitation regarding the elevation of “wilderness” into something inherently much better and virtuous than the man made nature. I don’t pretend that we can do better than nature - that is not the point. Vogt writes that “It’s dangerous on any level to see ourselves as stewards [of nature]”. I certainly agree that it is dangerous, but the reality is that we have to take on that dangerous task whether we like it or not as we have already interfered in the rest of the biosphere so much that all our actions influence all the other lifeforms.  By and large, we have created new natures, new landscapes which are the foundation for human civilization. Agriculture is of course the best example. And agriculture is not at all based on native or natural plants, it is based on large-scale alterations of landscapes, ecological interactions and even species, including the movement of plants and animals across oceans.

A growing number of people realise that the way we farm and the way we manage the sea, grasslands and the forests are not sustainable. A substantial number of these people seek refuge in ideas that we should retract from nature and let it be, left in peace. Meanwhile we should produce food, fibre and energy from mysterious high-tech innovations (they will never deliver what they promise, but that another discussion). I am concerned that a glorification of wilderness and native plants combined with high-tech dreams of food production turns a much needed attention away from how we manage the man-made landscapes and the necessary stewardship involved.  

Vogt is prone to hyperbolic statements and metaphors which meaning are hard to comprehend. “We are made of exploded stars”, well sure we are, but how does it matter? But among all those eloquent words, he has a PhD in creative writing, there are also many very memorable passages. In one of those he writes that gardens may give us hope. But then he adds “I don’t want to always feel better in my garden. I don’t want to be healed. I need my pain. I need my anger. These emotions are not enemies but indicators of empathy and compassion.” 

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