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Nature in the Future Will Look More Like a Garden

Wilderness or garden? How we think about spaces like these will affect how we take care of them. Photo by Mark Baldwin

Twenty years ago, I went on this amazing hike through a Hemlock forest in the Shenandoah National Park.  Hemlock groves have a wonderful Gothic quality: dark, angular spires of the trunks are contrasted with the intricate tracery of the needles on bended branch.  Ten years later, I convinced my wife to go with me to re-create the experience.  This time, however, all of the Hemlocks were gone—victim to the wooly adelgid.  Brambles and vines stood in the sunny areas where there were once dark groves.  

It is hard for me to talk about my love of native plants without thinking about loss.  The scale of the loss is well documented.  The natural spaces that remain are often riddled with invasive species.  Emma Marris' excellent book, Rambunctious Gardens, makes this point quite powerfully.  In 2017 there is almost no pristine wilderness left on the planet. We have disturbed it all. 

Yet despite this loss, I am an optimist.  I am an optimist because I believe--as Marris points out--that nature is everywhere.  It is the Paulowinia that forces its way through the crack in the city alley; it is the praying mantis in my garden, it is the Burmese pythons in the Everglades, and it is the pockets of rare Pitcher’s Plants in the farmer’s ditch.  Nature is everywhere.  But it is not nature as we once knew it.  It is our nature, our garden, influenced by us.

The problem is that we want nature to be pristine.  The landscape architect Martha Schwartz said that “Americans treat nature like Victorians treated women: as virgins or whores.”  For us, if nature (OUT THERE) is not some pristine wilderness, then it’s not nature.  To focus exclusively on the preserving the last of our “virgin” or “old growth” woods is to lose site of the larger issue right under our noses: the spaces that surround us every day.

This realization was quite empowering to me as a designer.  I recently worked on a master plan for a large-scale ecological restoration. The goal was to use the development of a several thousand-acre site to re-create a mosaic of ecosystems that we believed were likely once on the site.  Our plans called for the eradication of invasive species by cutting them down, treating them with herbicides, and planting native species.  After this, the site would have to be weeded for years on end to make sure the invasives were kept in check.  Parts of the site would require managing through mowing or burning.  The more I thought about this process, with all its weeding, mowing, and planting, the more it felt like gardening to me.  And any gardener knows that the process of gardening never ends.  

So my first realization is that pristine nature does not really exist OUT there.  My second realization is that pristine nature cannot really exist apart from massive amounts of tending on our part.  

Tending, yes, this is something I know about.  I've spent my professional life designing artificial landscapes for people, and then trying to teach them how to tend it.  It’s not a perfect process, but it is a process that can be replicated on all sorts of sites.  Maintenance matters, but smart design matters more.  

I believe in design.  Despite the goodwill I still have for our elected leaders, I do not count on much.  Now is not the era of the politician.  Now is the era of the designer.  Design focuses on resolving conflicts by looking at all angles and finding feasible solutions.

One example of the kind of smart design I am optimistic about is the work of British landscape architects James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett.  Their work is aimed at studying naturalistic herbaceous vegetation for use in urban landscapes and parks.  They use a palette of “semi-natural” plant communities (both native and exotic species) to create visually dramatic ornamental plantings.  I featured a post on their stylized meadows at the London Olympics.  What is most exciting is that their work focuses on creating low cost, low maintenance management strategies such as mowing or burning.  Their projects are not simply ecological restoration, but also beautiful, ornamental plantings.  Without beauty, they write, there would be little public acceptance for the ecology.  Their work is one part garden design, one part ecological restoration, and one part community development.  For me, it represents the best of the future: designed ecologies that feed our souls as much as it feeds the butterflies.

While not as complex as a naturally-occurring prairie, this designed planting at the Morton Arboretum provides a range of much needed ecosystem services.

The front lines of the battle for nature are not the Amazon rain forest or the Alaskan wilderness; the front lines are our backyards, medians, parking lots, and elementary schools. The ecological warriors of the future won’t just be scientists, engineers, or even landscape architects.  The ecological warriors of the future will be gardeners, horticulturists, land managers, Department of Transportation staff, elementary school teachers, and community association board members.  Anyone who can influence a small patch of land has the ability to create more nature.  And the future nature will look more and more like a garden.  

Originally published on January 22, 2013