Wild[er]ness, or It's still only gardening

Working despite

I was in a field class recently.  During a break with another student, a research professor, I shared details about my ecological restoration work.  He responded with interest, but finally said, “It’s still only gardening, isn’t it?”.

His comment seems to suggest a lesser valuing of ecological restoration, alluding to gardening in the sense of dabbling, of artifice, of not the real thing (not real nature).

This is something I encounter regularly, and is often discussed in the fields of restoration and environmental philosophy.  It is part of the trouble with wilderness. It is shown by the wonderful field ecologist who waxes poetic about the wild places in which they work, but at home grows only lawn and daffodils.  It is shown in the valuing of the far-away over the next-door.  It prefers the [fragile] intact, over the functional recovering, landscape.

I don’t at all mind thinking of ecological restoration as gardening.  As that term implies caring and effective human hands in the landscape, it is true.  As that term implies a deeper engagement between people and nature, it is of critical importance.

I am glad for healthy skepticism that insists on ecological quality and function and rejects poor substitute landscapes, like the range of ‘replacement wetlands’ in the urban and suburban world.

And I recognize the dilemma of how to devote resources: preserving our wildest lands and buffering them and connecting them; managing lesser-functioning lands toward ecological recovery; claiming the potential for ecological function where it has been absent.

But what I hope for and work for is a lens that sees wholeness, an earth inhabited, and considers landscapes in context and in potential.  I wish landscapes (ecosystems) to be valued by what they are, what they do, and all they give freely — to the wild and toward the whole earth’s health.  Our wild places are worthy. A restored urban riparian corridor that thousands of kids experience is also worthy — not only because it teaches, and that may lead to care of wild places elsewhere, but because it is of ecological value itself, an ecological necessity in the earth’s network.  We cannot successfully divide the earth into wilderness and domesticity, with ecology only in one.  Rain falls the same.  Sun shines the same.  Carbon cycles the same.  We wild gardeners, we ecological restorationists, we volunteers planting native seeds, are doing the earth’s work.

[Above: controlling Phalaris in a small stream where the Penthorum still lives]

Nancy Aten