A Grain of Salt

I would probably make a terrible teacher. I’m way too much of a daydreamer. Children and people in general intimidate me. I can’t make lesson plans although I do find myself imagining one from time to time and then immediately dismiss it as ridiculous. I often find as I perform various gardening tasks, that I’m thinking how I would teach what I’m doing. It would be fun but then I wonder if my way is the best way or if I even know what I’m doing. Or if anyone would like the way I garden. Unlike other landscape operations such as restoration, there are no real rules for gardening. It’s just something people do in their spare time and to their own personal specifications.

Since I seem to love it, I also thought about doing it professionally but from what I’ve found, it’s not really done here in the states. When I do a Google search for gardener, all the jobs come up in the UK. Here in the U.S., there are landscape design jobs or architect or groundskeeper or just plain landscaper but none for a gardener who goes around like Peter Sellers in that movie, Being Thereleisurely clipping, pruning, raking and what not.

Here in the U.S., there is no romance to the profession. For the most part, it’s strictly business, involving power tools, mulch, fertilizer and pesticides, none of which I really use when I garden. In most developments, every yard looks exactly like the others. Same grass, trees and shrubs. Maybe a few pansies. It’s not a process, but an operation, performed by laborers, not gardeners. It’s done all at once and then possibly repeated once a year. Not something flexible that happens gradually over a long period of time.

And this is interesting as Americans are supposed to be the individualists. Not copycats who like to be confined by a set of strict rules. We are supposed to be free to do as we please and yet, the majority of us chose to be like everyone else on the block.

On a seemingly unrelated note, I just went to my second native plant society meeting where the speaker was Rod Simmons, Plant Ecologist for the city of Alexandria. He talked about restoration and how the main priority should always be preservation of existing natural communities. He used examples of places known in the ecological world as seepage streams, where natural communities exist, some thought to be over a thousand years old. Apparently, bloated government jurisdictions are destroying these places for no other reason than to get credit for restoring the landscape. Clearly there is a drastic discrepancy in the meaning of landscape restoration between management parties.

His slideshow  featured before and after pictures that made the audience gasp. Luscious communities of ferns, sedge, hornbeam and oak were transformed to what appeared to be bare, fabric covered slopes dotted with a few scrawny trees and magnificent boulders thrown in for effect. In other cases, plantings of cover crops or badly matched native plants gave way to fields of Japanese stiltgrass or lesser celandine. It was the type of thing that made me wonder why this organization was even talking about this and not out there in the field blocking bulldozers.

He then goes on to provide some examples of landscape restoration projects that are somewhat successful at restoring the land. In these cases, natural communities were preserved. Only degraded areas around these communities were cleared and restored with seeds of nearby native plants. His team made a Do No Harm management plan that hopefully, governments and developers will adhere to. Hopefully…

I was so impressed with Simmon’s talk, I searched online and found some articles* he wrote where he went into more detail about his views of what landscape restoration should be as well as its critical importance to overall ecological health. I got the strong sense that despite the fact that these unique natural communities are in a great deal of jeopardy, there are enough of them still in existence to both warrant their protection and convince me they are of high ecological value. At the same time, I also felt a deep sense of guilt for being part of such a destructive species that is so separate from the purities of nature, almost as if I were an invasive species.

As I read the article further, I ran into this sentence,

“I think the first item on that agenda should be distinguishing cultural areas from natural areas.”

And then this one,

“Gardening is fine in its own setting but horticulture and restoration are two very different things.”

I think if there is one word that annoys me in the ecological realm it has to be the word, natural. I don’t mind words like restoration, native plant, nature, garden, weed, invasive or pristine so much as this word that seems to try with all its might to separate me from the natural world. Am I not natural? Are the things I make not natural? A squirrel makes a nest. That’s natural, but I make a garden and that’s not natural. I get it. A garden isn’t something that occurs naturally, as in without the influence of humans. But why are we separate?

And why are these so called “natural communities” so darn more important than my garden? If I plant the same plants wouldn’t it be? Yes, I know the answer. NO. A definite no. These communities evolved over thousands of years forming deep and connected relationships with a diversity of life and the non living forces of nature. I just can’t up and make that with any seed pack. There is no magic bean. There is no doubt in my mind we need to preserve these areas and do the best we can to restore areas we have clearly degraded.

Yet, I still can’t help but wonder if I really am so separate. If anything is really. Couldn’t a garden if done in the right way be as good as landscape restoration for ecology? Could something I make be considered natural? I understand the need for the separation terminology, I just think it might be a good idea to take it with a grain of salt. We are, after all just forces in nature. Humans can be destructive and we need to collectively work on that big time, but we are not separate from nature.

It’s easy to see why we came up with the word, natural. We are so different from any other living or nonliving thing. So much more intelligent and complex, seems like we were meant to be the supreme rulers and maybe we are. But if that’s true, we don’t seem to be good ones. And are we really all that different anyway? Are we meant to be separate? As I dawdle around in my garden, planting seeds and watching them grow into plants that feed and shelter other animals, is that not a kind of natural restoration? I want my garden and myself, for that matter, to support the larger ecosystem and restore the land, but most of all, I just want to be natural.

*More articles by Rod Simmons

Where Does Ecological Restoration Fit?

Long‐term outcomes of forest restoration in an urban park

Hope and Reality for Urban Ecosystems

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