May 20, 2018
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Using garden ethic in public places

By Reeser Manley

“The garden suggests there might be a place where we can meet nature halfway.”

— Michael Pollan

In his essay, “The Idea of a Garden,” published in 2003 in his book, “Second Nature,” Pollan describes the dilemma facing a community after a tornado devastates the local old-growth pine forest, Cathedral Pines, requiring a decision by the residents on the area’s future. Some community members wanted the area immediately cleared and replanted to pines, others advocated letting nature take her course in the area, still others focused on the economic value of the fallen timber and advocated harvesting as the first priority, followed by replanting.

In Pollan’s view, the debate was centered in a “wilderness ethic” about land management. The Cathedral Pines were viewed as wilderness, an area largely unspoiled by human activity, by advocates of replanting and proponents of “natural selection.” He points out, however, that those who favored natural selection were operating in the mistaken view that there was only one possible outcome, one “nature’s course,” which would ultimately result in a climax pine forest. In fact, there were many possibilities, including the long-term colonization of the area by non-native invasive plant species.

Invasive species were also a potential threat should the area be replanted to pines, for there was no guarantee that seeds of shrub honeysuckle or burning bush would not find their way into the newly planted area and quickly become the dominant species, out-competing the pines for resources. Perhaps Oriental bittersweet vine would take over, sprawling over the young trees, blocking out the sun.

Wilderness is dead, suggests Pollan, the victim of habitat destruction, invasive species, pollution, human population growth and over-harvesting. Since Pollan’s essay was published, noted Harvard biologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward O. Wilson has coined the acronym HIPPO to represent these five human-induced causes of biodiversity decline on Earth. And the HIPPO juggernaut continues to roll along, unabated for the most part.

Perhaps, then, it is time to replace the wilderness ethic with a new ethic, one that will work. Pollan suggests a “garden ethic” and proceeds to describe the numerous ways in which gardeners have demonstrated a nature-centered approach to management of the land.

Recently, walking across the University of Maine campus, I came across a newly installed garden bench bearing a plaque celebrating the “green” campus initiative. The bench, appropriately painted green, invited the passerby to sit for a moment and look out over the landscape. Less than 40 feet away grew a large fruiting specimen of an invasive shrub honeysuckle, one of several that have been growing on the campus, and polluting nearby natural areas, for decades.

Less than a mile from this bench, as the crow flies, this same species of shrub honeysuckle has completely altered the natural landscape along the Penobscot River. The understory vegetation is almost totally honeysuckle at the expense of native shrub species, a radical reduction of local biodiversity. Since the fruits of invasive honeysuckles are eaten by birds and the seeds subsequently dispersed into local areas, it is a good bet that the seed source of the Penobscot river-bank invasion is the nearby campus landscape.

I walked by the bench and the honeysuckle and thought, this place needs a gardener, someone who can apply the garden ethic to its management, remove the invasive honeysuckles (and invasive Norway maples and burning bush plantings and Japanese barberry plantings), replacing them with native shrub species that will sustain local wildlife. That would be a true “green” initiative!

It is easy to meet nature halfway in our own gardens while ignoring what is happening in nearby public landscapes and the impact of the HIPPO juggernaut on natural areas that, if not wilderness, still have the potential to shore up biodiversity if properly managed.

Gardeners should advocate for public landscape management guided by the garden ethic.

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