Sunday, January 31, 2010

Nature, Culture, and Gardening

I've been participating in a community-based restoration project in my neighborhood. The agreed upon objective is to restore and maintain a mature (probably old-growth)oak-hickory woodland. The woodland is part of a city park, and the city has had a hands-off management approach. About once a year, paths are cut through the largest deadfalls blocking trails, and the city will take down dead trees that threaten structures on the neighboring properties. The park has dense networks of trails, and it is heavily used in all seasons.

It's also ecologically distinctive. It contains a number of mature butternut trees, which have become rare in the northeast, and some other rare tree specimens. Its majestic red, black, scarlet, and white oaks are close to 200 years old. There are also large tulip trees, hickories, and black cherries, as well as two glacial kettles. Archival photographs and maps indicate that it was never logged.

And, not surprisingly, it contains many, many Norway maples. Lots of autumn olive. Banks of black swallowwort. And garlic mustard looms on the edges. Invasive species are a real problem. Knocking out all the Norway maples, though, would quite possibly cause a noticeable impact in the understory. Members of the project are passionate and, in many ways, knowledgeable about natural history. The project itself, though, is not data-driven.

One of the things that has interested me about the public response to the project has been frequent opposition on the grounds that any form of maintenance or intervention is akin to gardening and therefore "unnatural."

I've heard several people say that they do not mind the idea that the oaks would be overcome by Norway maples fifty years from now. One said that one tree is as good as another--as long as the woodland is green, it's essentially the same. But others have said that they wouldn't mind the transformation because they see that change as part of the natural order. Things change, and as long as the change is "natural," it can be welcomed. Keeping Norway maples out of this grove is viewed as manipulation, and the specific kind of manipulation as driven by nostalgia, a desire to treat this woodland as though it is a museum piece.

What are the politics behind these views? I sense a kind of anti-intellectualism that identifies science with elitism. The concept of "invasive species" is a scientific concept, not a folk category. Moreover, perhaps there is the feeling that a negative judgment against this grove that they have always enjoyed and perceived as perfectly healthy is a judgment against them for not being as attuned as others have been to its ecological fragility. There is resistance to the idea that this grove--or any part of nature--is or could be fragile.

There seems to be an identification of these 50 or so acres as wilderness, despite their location inside the city limits of a large city. Since they're perceived as wilderness, the legitimate response is seen as neglect, not management. Perhaps more trust is put in nature as manager than humans as managers.


Khadimir said...

I believe I recall the area that you're talking about. However, I would suspect that you over-intellectualize the issue (in your description) until the last point. Most folks think "wilderness" means "don't touch it," and like most people will react and respond foremost emotively. Any intervention is seen as artificial, even if the forest itself is or is not "artificial."

Regardless, I applaud your efforts.

Paul B Thompson said...

Michael Pollan is good on your quesiton. See his discussion of Cathedral Pines from the 1991 book Second Nature.

Evelyn Brister said...

Thanks for the reference, Paul. I'll check it out-I enjoyed The Botany of Desire and The Omnivore's Dilemma.

I've been working on this so-called restoration project for over a year, but the work quiets down over the winter. The reason I've been thinking about it now is that I'm reading Eric Higgs' 2003 Nature By Design (this time systematically rather than a chapter here and there). He has some comments about how cultural constructions of natural spaces differ between Europe and North America. In particular, Europeans have a history of cultivating nature and American have a concept of nature as approaching wilderness.

What has most struck me, though, in listening to various people talk about the project, is that there is not a single vision of what is or could be best. The polarized visions are the ones that are most repeated--a desire, on the one hand, for a hands-off management strategy (regardless of the outcome) or, on the other hand, disregard for the special features of this woodland.

The only group that has *some* unification on identifying a desired process and product seems to be the people that share some training in science: a couple of high school science teachers, university ecology professors and their students, a landscape architect, a master gardener with an environmental science master's degree.

But even among this group, there is someone trained in forestry who believes that because restoration, in its strictest definition, is unattainable, any attempt is, at best, a waste of resources.

One irony is that he calls the proposed management strategies "mere gardening." Eric Higgs and Stuart Allison have both argued that restoration IS very much like gardening, but that the similarity is not a problem unless one adopts the assumption that the recovery of nature requires the removal of cultural influence.

Khadimir said...


It sounds like I misindentified the socio-economic slice of people involved. Now I'm curious since you brought it up. Exactly who are these debates with in terms of socio-economic indicators?

Evelyn Brister said...

Khadimir, are you asking what the class identification is of the people who have attended the public meetings?

The neighborhood is upper middle-class. Which is to say, some of the highest property values inside the city limits. Also, this area borders a suburb and some of the most vocal opponents come from that suburb. The people working in support of the project tend, for the most part, to be educators, social workers, artists, and civil servants by occupation. Those in opposition vary but many are in business and law.

I'm not sure how socioeconomic class comes into the politics, but I'm sure it has complex effects. One line of opposition toward restoration efforts has been a fear that undertaking such efforts would draw publicity and that publicity would make the park more popular.

There are two ways to read this worry. One way is that there is an environmental concern: more people in the park would contribute to the damage. The other way is less charitable: possible overtones of racism.

Evelyn Brister said...

Chapter 10 in Pollan's book is indeed excellent and relevant. I'll pass it on. One of the things that most struck me was that there was a high level of concern expressed about Cathedral Pines, and not just in the local area. There were also articles about it in the New York Times. But Cathedral Pines, as Pollan describes it, encompassed only about 50 acres. This is the same size as our Grove.
Several ecologists have mentioned that this park is the only urban old-growth forest they can think of in the state. Perhaps more could be done in terms of publicity if it truly has such unique status.

Khadimir said...


Not just class, i.e., economic status, but also the social strata. Hence, I note that you put business and lawyers, often affiliated with rightist politics and culture, in opposition to educators, etc. that are often affiliated with leftist politics and culture.

Certain views tend to correlate with certain socio-economic indicators, which become concrete in a particular case. E.g., I know where to go in Carbondale, IL to find sympathetic people for your cause and where to go for the opposite. (I would start naming certain bars, coffee shops, events, age groups, backgrounds, languages, races, etc. to sketch a number of concrete profiles.) Socio-economic strata tend to disassociate in ways that reflect their geographic location, activity, etc.

What motivates the question is that I would suppose that certain socio-economic strata (or their indicators) would strongly tend towards one position or another. For instance, your comment about "anti-science" made me thing of the lower middle class and below, which also indicates the manual and business labor classes. If this is not the case, that would be interesting.

As for the practical import, if one knew the socio-economic dynamics of those involved, then one might be able to manage or dance about the in-group/out-group behavior. Say the right things to the right people. Show that you understand by showing that you're one of them, which grants a receptive audience. Trying to explain "invasive species" to certain groups might alienate them, as you said it didn't click with some.

Recently, I was our university's graduate student union negotiator. In that context, I had different people from different backgrounds speak to the given group as befitted the indicators, and it went fairly well. (I was matched to foreign students … and away from MidWesterners....)

Margaret said...

I am interested in your suggestion that people resist the idea that nature is vulnerable.

As far as the people problem - I would suggest that what is needed is simply education. At one time I didn't understand the problem of invasive species, but I read about it/took a class and now it makes perfect sense.

There is a certain mentality that develops - that of taking care of those things that evolved around here. Where removing the invasives allows them to continue to live - where letting things go does not.

A lot of people may respond to the potential loss of native wildflowers - and the fact that they can rebound when the invasives are removed.

With the Maples - perhaps removing the smaller ones, and uprooting new ones would be a workable compromise.