Which nature? Rambunctious Garden by Emma Marris: a review by Catharine Howard

October 7, 2014

in Book Reviews, Reviews

Before  you ask, rambunctious means difficult, hard to deal with – as in children and – nature.It’s an Americanism. Don’t be put off if you’re in the UK, this is interesting stuff.

With thanks to Catharine Howard.

Anne Wareham, editor

Rambunctious Garden cover on thinkingardens

Catharine Howard:

Emma Marris writes about nature and ecology for several prestigious American magazines – ‘Nature’ for one.  Her book Rambunctious Garden came out in 2011 and I am sitting looking at my paperback copy which has a mullein flowering on a railway siding that leads to a dismal urban waterfront. This and the sub-title  “Saving Nature in a Post-wild World”  sets out her stall.  Flick to the back and bibliography is stiff with the big guns of ecological research.  It’s no flighty whimsy of a book.   She has a degree in Science writing and a portfolio of interesting articles:  the effects of the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone park being a recent one.

James Muir on thinkingardens

John Muir

Rambunctious Garden has a two fold mission.  The second is what it says on the tin – the saving nature bit. (and wonderfully optimistic that is)  First up is Marris’s argument to show the reader how nature has forever been in flux and change and for millennia man has had a part in this too.  In the last 150 years affluence has added a self conscious element to the human side of things with a creed developed to save the world – and that is where Yellowstone comes in.  Along with John Muir.

Yellowstone  covers  3,472 miles of Wyoming.  It has geysers, hot springs, canyons and forest.  Home to elk, bears, bison, wolves and antelope and long horn sheep.  It is wild and empty and was made made a national park in 1872.  I must explain John Muir- Scottish emigre, writer, “prophet of environmental awareness”  (1838-1914.)  He has quite a bit to answer for – as America opened up and the Wild West disappeared,  nature and “pristine wilderness’ began to lodge in national sentiment  with a quasi religious fervour.  Muir thundered that the Miwok  should be removed from Yosemite and Yellowstone kept empty.  Americans reached for the baseline of the state of the land when the first Europeans arrived.

Geyser, Yellowstone copyright Catharine Howard

Geyser, Yellowstone

This, as Marris points out, was arbitrary.  By archeological reckoning the two Americas had a  population of 112 million, pre Columbus’s arrival.  European disease, smallpox in the main, wiped out 95% of the inhabitants.  The shape and stretch of the vegetation had changed several times, more of that below.  However ‘pristine wilderness’  took a grip and the Yellowstone model of an empty land became the ideal for nature preservation.

The US exported this philosophy to other countries and it was used to wrest lands from people with few rights and weak voices.  1948 saw the World Wildlife Fund set up and the process of removing marginal people has scythed  its way into the 21st century.  The indigenous peoples of Arba Minch, Ethiopia,  were being relocated only 10 years back.  The  conflict of interest between pastoralists and tourism  has tightened like a drumskin.

This presupposes nature is in balance without man.  The text book idea of succession leading to climax vegetation is as realistic as ballet without movement.  What we have instead is predictable cycles that are swamped by sheer randomness.  “The only constant in nature is change itself”.  (Heraclitus)

The book begins with the description of Scotia Sanctuary in Oz.  In this place a furry collection of nearly extinct marsupials are kept alive behind a wire fence.  All predators have been shot to blithereens and a warden is on the prowl to keep them alive within.    These animals are only going to survive with the ceaseless prowling of their gun-toting steward.

Land for the tourists or the pastoralists?

Land for the tourists or the pastoralists?

From there she skips to Hawaii and sad patches of forest plants, hand weeded with dedication to stop the exotics or aliens overtaking their patch.

These  modern human attempts at repelling ecological  stochasticity  – the randomness of change – are Canute-like.  Marris draws on examples from pollen research.  By this method, plant movement can be traced over several glaciations and a picture of constant flux emerges with plant species adapting and evolving.

If we go back 13,000 years  Rambuctious Garden gives a historical sweep of man’s influence on the planet.  America way back was pretty different.  There was a mega fauna of giant sloths, giant tortoises and all the pantheon of creatures familiar to us from Africa.  These all died out 13,000 years ago.  The hypothesis is that they were hunted to extinction by Clovis people who had enormous spears and very big appetites.   The removal of these animals meant that savannah turned to forest. The pirouette between man and nature goes on, with current hand-wringing over global warming, exotic plant and animal species, whether to move vulnerable species or reintroduce predators.  Invasive species arriving in rootballs, disease spreading through imported nursery stock have all us gardeners gasping and stretching our eyes. But there is hope.

Marris concludes the book with ‘the gestalt switch” – for this I reached for a dictionary.  This emphasises personal responsibility and  focuses on the individual’s present experience.  Mindfulness, if you will.  Stop yearning about the large (and non existent) tracts of pristine wilderness and see nature all around you. That done, nature is truly all about and every scrap of land, derelict or cultivated can harbour pollinating insects, beneficial microbes, flowers, birds.   Industrial sites, roofs – you name it.  She throws in a plea for corridors in agricultural lands (essential for migration of even the smallest insect).  Oh and while you are at it stop mowing your lawn.

I read this book fast, enjoyed it and put it down with a buoyant sense that all is not over with our planet.  There was a good deal in the historic content that was news to me – it has always puzzled me that the African continent has such a weird fauna and I had no idea before reading Marris’s book that it was so widespread.  I’ve had a pretty good check on-line and the fantastical Mega Fauna really did exist.

The other revelation was to find conservationists at such loggerheads over the ethics of rewilding beasts and moving plants around to get them out of the zone where they can no longer survive due to  the heating up of the globe. Marris’s geographical range sweeps  over the atlas – for my uneducated part I could really have done with maps and some good illustrations of the wonders of Yosemite, Yellowstone et all.



Lastly,  there were a few other things  things that I thought were missing for someone in the UK.  No mention of the horrors of  Chalara fraxinia (ash dieback), oak processionary moth or the scare of Asian longbeetle hitching a lift in.  On the human front, the change to the Norfolk Broads wrought by men (and monks at that) probably would not get onto the US radar but worth a mention.  It would have been good to have had some development of the theme of ecological land grab,  since the victims of this are usually  pastoralist peoples.  They have an unusual care of the land’s resources and courtesy to it.

Finally in her last chapter she serves up the necessity of planting natives.   (sorry  Dr Ben Pitcher)  – I just don’t buy into this.  Sheffield’s BUG project proves that pollinators do not make the distinction between which flower is or isn’t. (Might be different in America. ed.)

Catharine Howard  Blog

Catharine Howard portrait

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Dave October 8, 2016 at 10:00 am

“The horror, the horror” — original quote from Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” . . . another species overwhelmed and supplanted. I’m such a nativist 🙂

Eugene October 26, 2014 at 12:29 am

Fantastic book and one I have been guilty of proselytising about for some years now.

This book really did wipe the frown from my face. Nature is vast, in a constant state of flux and a lot of our handwringing, guilt driven insistence on a ‘natural’ order is often confused and pointless at best. Of course human induced species loss is a deplorable thing, but the triage involved in saving some species, while noble, is absurdly expensive and doomed when the passion and the funds run out.

Here in Australia the Nativists are condemning us to live in a fire dependent eco system that is ugly, useless and exclusive. Eucalypts are allelopathic, contain 8% volatile oil, offer poor shade in this the hottest of continents and can send shards of flaming bark for kilometres. Some states have fines of up to $250,000 for ‘interfering’ with native vegetation and most councils are dominated by Green ideologues who aren’t shy in dispensing massive fines for trivial acts of gardening.

I liked “The Rambunctious Garden” for the way it lifted a lot of my horror at the way humans have impacted on the supposed integrity of our eco systems. The way baselines are often an arbitrary goal, and how we are an essential ingredient in the way nature swings around us and we in it.

Thank you for an excellent review Catharine.

Catharine Howard October 26, 2014 at 8:15 pm

Hello Eugene – thank you for commenting and it was interesting to read your views on eucalypts. They make me shudder with horror as I have seen widespread planting of them in East Africa an Ethiopia – also in Spain. I am aware that they suck everything out of the soil to the detriment of other vegetation. To that add your news of allelopathy. As for fire risk…..

Eugene October 27, 2014 at 8:32 pm

A pest species in most of the world, yet absurdly sacrosanct in Oz. I could bang on at length about the crimes against the environment here Catherine, but it would only turn into an ugly diatribe.

Suffice to say, since we sacked the original gardeners in 1788 without bothering to ask how they did it, we have been struggling to find the right response to living in this fire wracked land. The Nativists are driving the bus now with a headless driver and with an increasing volatile, hotter climate……

To quote Marlon Brando from ‘Apocalypse Now’ – “……the horror…the horror…”

Helen Gazeley October 8, 2014 at 4:16 pm

Sounds interesting. What strikes me is the enormous ego exhibited by humans. We handweed forests in a whirl of self-flagellating guilt at “what we’re doing to the world” when Nature herself exterminates species whenever they are no longer useful.

The ego encourages us to think that, now that humans have arrived, evolution stops here and it sounds as if this book offers a very healthy counterbalance to this opinion. I hope I’ll get round to reading it.

(And I love the Ed’s suggestion that American bugs have fussier appetites than ours in the UK.)

Catharine Howard October 10, 2014 at 12:59 pm

Helen you are right – too much inteference… reminds me of the misguided principles of Colonialism.

Charles Hawes October 8, 2014 at 11:38 am

I ended up confused when I read this review. Confused about what Marris is advocating in her book, and confused too about what the reviewer made of it. There may well be no fault in either writer. It seems to me that it is potentially a very confusing business trying to work out where to stand on the “we are going to hell in a handcart” Vs “bring it on” continuum.

Personally I’m at the “bring it on and stop beating ourselves up for being human beings” end of the spectrum. Making gardens seems to me to be basically a Good Thing compared to just having a lawn or a slab of concrete or paving front and back. So if you have a bit of lawn and you want it mowed, then go ahead. Sure, we’ve every reason to be upset if some nasty disease has arrived to kill our Ash, Oak, etc and it is entirely understandable and human to want to do something about it. But as soon as we start to fret about what is happening in the UK we lose sight of the fact that for the most part such diseases are not, in themselves, man-made.

They are part of the complex evolving global ecology where things come and go, including, as the reviewer points out, the prevalence or otherwise of humans. And as we know nature wipes us out in our millions from time to time and we do a pretty good job of working with nature on this. Maybe we should stop worrying so much about the future, tend our gardens as we think fit and as far as the EU will us to do so and, and stop trying to imitate Canute.

Catharine Howard October 12, 2014 at 11:14 am

Hi Charles – My reading of this book is that man has misinterpreted the history of the plant, over-categorised it and on the scientific front come up with some pretty weird schemes that have unbalanced our relationship with “nature”. We can stop meddling and relax – – this is what you are saying too. – I am looking at my neighbour’s chimney pot and it has a buddleja growing out of it. Nature as irrepressible.

Stuart Pryde October 8, 2014 at 10:57 am

You’ve certainly convinced me this is a book worth reading.

Benjamin Vogt October 7, 2014 at 7:20 pm

There are certain native bees that forage on only specific aster species, which means it’s fall, which means they’re packing away food for overwintering larvae. So I do think it matters, native or non (more absolutism on my part here: http://deepmiddle.blogspot.com/2014/10/are-adaptable-landscape-plants-white.html). Kids today see 35% fewer butterflies and moths than parents did 40 years ago, and 28% fewer birds, frogs, and mammals. There’s so much I agree and disagree on with Marris — it was a great book that had me tossing it against a wall and pumping my fists in solidarity. 🙂 I’m hoping to read Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction soon (and, oh, 20 other books).

Catharine Howard October 12, 2014 at 11:20 am

Interesting about the plant specific bees. Thanks for link to your blog. I will read it with interest. Here at in UK at Sheffield University (which has led the interest in Pictorial meadows – as distinct from Wildflower Meadows which are purely native species – and in tandem with that they have an initiative called BUGS which has made a study of pollinating insects in the domestic garden and found that the visiting insects do not distinguish between natives and exotics. However, we have a very impoverished flora compared to US so that may make a difference.

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