In the six years we’ve lived and worked on this farm, our perspective on the world around us has changed significantly and somewhat unexpectedly. We arrived here as idealistic young people, with a cultural background that loved and valued nature, and an academic training that emphasized the beauty and inherent value of natural things over human. We didn’t initially intend to farm full-time. Six years into taking ownership of a piece of land and learning how to live both with and on it, we’ve changed somewhat. We still hold dear the idea of wilderness and escape, but have learned a new respect for the potential value in people working with landscapes and ecologies to produce a higher value for humans AND nature.
We were still grappling with this fundamental change in our worldview when we first read Rambunctious Garden, a new book by Columbia-based science writer Emma Marris. This concise and thought-provoking book lays out the very ideas we’d been grappling with and places them in the wider context of a developing change in ecological thinking. We’ve become friends with Emma and her family, having deeply enjoyable and challenging discussions about our similar and different perspectives on land use, nature, and human activities. Emma has agreed to host a book discussion at the farm in November, for any CSA members who read the book and wish to engage further in the issues presented there.
Emma is a concise and powerful writer, and the book is pleasantly short for the amount of content and ideas presented within. The introduction alone presents her argument effectively, which I’ll attempt to summarize here with a few chosen quotes:
This book is about a new way of seeing nature…We are already running the whole Earth, whether we admit it or not. To run it consciously and effectively, we must admit our role and even embrace it. We must temper our romantic notion of untrammeled wilderness and find room next to it for the more nuanced notion of a global, half-wild rambunctious garden, tended by us.
Layering goals and managing landscapes with an eye to the future, rather than the past, is the cutting edge of conservation…(the) faith that native ecosystems are better than changed ecosystems is so pervasive in fields like ecology that is has become an unquestioned assumption. One often finds it built into experiments, which sometimes automatically classify any human change to nature as “degredation”. …it still saturates nature writing and nature documentaries, where the wild is always better than the tame. The cult of pristine wilderness is a cultural construction, and a relatively new one. It was born, like so many creeds, in America.
The book’s narrative arc, tracing changes in ecological thought to accommodate the value of human interaction with and even improvement of natural landscapes, mirrors our own journey on this farm. Over the last six years, we’ve set about gradually immersing ourselves in the ownership and management of a piece of land which had been heavily used and even abused by humans, and was slowly reverting back to nature through inattention. Instead of allowing that to proceed at its own pace, we began taking charge: clearing brush, fencing in fields, established managed growing beds, cutting trees, improving forest health, “restoring” prairie, and more.
We began to develop the idea that by actively managing the land, and learning how to help it produce things useful and profitable for humans, we could actually benefit the ecology of the farm as well by encouraging the “right” sorts of changes. Native prairies/grasslands are rare in Missouri now, but by carefully managing a herd of dairy goats (in place of the original bison) we could begin to encourage its return. By managing fields to offer more habitat to migrating songbirds, we could compensate for more habitat loss elsewhere. By selectively logging and burning the land, we could accelerate and direct processes that might take centuries in a “natural” setting, bringing on the benefits much faster. And by doing all this in ways that produced viable food and income for our community, we could achieve many of the same goals as state parks and conservation areas independently, without reliance on tax dollars or subsidies.
Indeed, we increasingly think of ourselves as a form of free-market conservation area. This revolution in thinking, from “leaving the land alone is best” to “actively managing the land is best” was gradual and is ongoing, and is still controversial to many people who see farming and other human activities as inherently harmful or necessary evils; or at least don’t see a farm like ours as equally diverse and valuable when compared to a traditional park or conservation area. Quick: would you laugh at the thought of going on a nature walk at a farm, with a farmer, rather than a state/national park with a ranger? Yet we’re more deeply involved with our local ecology than many employees of set-aside lands can possibly be. We know; we used to work with the National Park Service.
My primary concern about Rambunctious Garden is its near-total silence on the issue of farms and agricultural land use, which reflects the same blind spot in academia that sees most farmland as a lost cause rather than a potential gold mine of habitat and potential. This tension made some of our earliest discussions with Emma all the more interesting, and we hope it inspires more interest in meeting her and discussing the book at the November farm event.
So please find a copy of the book; you can purchase it from Amazon (click through from Emma’s website and she’ll get an additional cut), or you can ask local shops like Get Lost or Columbia Books if they stock it or can order it for you. We haven’t yet set the date for the discussion, but it will likely be a weekend in mid-November, hopefully on a brisk winter day when a nice fire in the stove and some hot tea provide the perfect ambiance for such an event. We’ll post an official note when we settle on a date & time. Children will be welcome; Emma has two young kids of her own.