R is for Rambunctious Garden

Note: I’m a bit behind (should be at T today) as I’ve been out of web range the past while. I’ll attempt to catch up in the next day!
I’ve been reading Emma Marris’ Rambunctious Garden, which I first heard about on Twitter in the fall. The comments were sufficiently intriguing that I decided to get my own copy.

R is for Rambunctious Garden

The central premise of Marris’ book is that there is no longer any such thing as ‘pristine wilderness’. Global climate change, air and water contamination, and other large-scale issues have cascading effects on global species migrations, declines, invasive species, (the list goes on). Given our impact on virtually every corner of the globe, it’s highly unlikely that we’ll ever find a piece of wilderness completely unaffected by human activities.

This basic premise leads to greater questions on topics like ecological restoration, or national parks management, which focus on achieving an ecosystem structure and condition relative to a specific baseline. In many cases, that baseline is represented by pre-colonial conditions – what the ecosystem was like before Europeans arrived. But as we learn more about the interactions between First Nations (and earlier) people and the environment – and indeed their effects on that environment – it becomes somewhat naive to assume that pre-colonial conditions represent an undisturbed baseline that we should strive to achieve. And even if it was realistic to reach these conditions, changing climate would make success almost impossible.

Marris brings up interesting arguments that both support and refute these statements, and outlines many new ideas from conservation biology and restoration ecology that feed into these arguments. There is some excellent cutting-edge insight into how current ecological studies are making us rethink key ecological principles that we’ve often taken for granted (e.g., ecosystem equilibrium, which is now considered unrealistic, thus more ecologists are studying ecosystem resilience).

The book is snappily written and manages to communicate fairly complex concepts very understandably. What helps is that Marris supplies a lot of specific examples: Garry oak communities on Vancouver Island, the ‘flying BEC zones’ of British Columbia, and the history – and current trajectory – of Yellowstone National Park, among others.

What doesn’t work as well, however, is the flippant tone of the book. Marris somehow manages to convey, with just a small turn of phrase, that conservationists who feel that building a tourist hotel in Yellowstone are just as deluded as those who think they can return a Scotch broom-infested Garry oak ecosystem to it’s pre-colonial state. While I’m just over halfway through the book, I still haven’t seen a good discussion of the differences between what we get from empty wilderness (pristine or not) versus what we get from wilderness affected by human built structures.

A good example that comes to mind is the ‘Glacier Discovery Walk‘. Recently approved by the federal government, it allows a private company – Brewster – to build a tourist attraction in Jasper National Park that includes a glass bottomed viewing platform extending 300 m out into the Sunwapta Valley. Rambunctious Garden suggests that national parks no longer represent pristine wilderness, which is likely correct. But does that then mean that park is already degraded to such an extent that it’s permissible to increase the human-built structures on this landscape? Or – since the existing human effect is largely ‘invisible’ since climate change mainly affects vegetation changes, timing and magnitude of runoff, etc., can we argue against this proposed tourist trap? (Aesthetically or otherwise)

Concept for the Glacier Discovery Walk (photo from Brewster)

I hope that by the time I finish the book I’ll have Marris’ answer to this question. In the meantime, though, I recommend the book to anyone interested in ecology, ecosystem resilience, restoration, adaptation, and just generally understanding what’s happening to our natural world.


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