Nature: Making the most of what we have

My kids are noisy – incredibly noisy. Even the most placid conversation between my 4-year old son and 7-year old daughter is conducted with the volume turned up to 11. When my 4-year old son starts shooting his Nerf gun (if you don’t have one you’re better off not knowing) with the target seemingly 4 cm above my head I head for the back door to my garden.

So, my garden is a refuge from the chaos. But while I enjoy pottering about planting and poking at things, it turns out that it may also have some conservation value.

It measures around 70 foot long and 10 foot wide. It’s puny by homeland Canadian sizes, and massive compared to urban London sizes. I’ve planted flowers that offer a succession of plants to provide pollinators with pollen and nectar throughout the growing season. And I’ve planted native plants which are more likely to attract bees with long tongues (called Bombus hortorum in case you’re interested)– plants like Hollyhock, Honeysuckle and Foxgloves. And we’ve created good habitat for creepy crawlies by leaving old wood scattered (leaving the garden with a slightly messy look). (But it also has a patch of grass and a patio to sit in. I’m no saint and am not claiming to be: it’s a compromise between creating some natural habitat for animals and bugs, and some habitat for us and the kids!)

Big deal you say. What difference can such a small plot make? Well, it seems that to small or mobile plants or animals, lots of small yards feel and act like one large range. These larger groups of populations or metapopulations could exist in greater quantities if people got rid of their lawns altogether says Ilkka Hanski, a researcher from University of Helsinki cited by Emma Marris in her book Rambunctious Garden. Hanski left his own garden to become a meadow for a few years. The result? An ecologist friend found 375 species in the yard. [pg. 147 in Marris’ book – all other page numbers listed refer to her book]

Anyone with practically any space can do this. “Every owner and renter can make any space work for nearly any conservation goal, whether they have a tiny balcony, a slot in a community garden, or a ranch in Texas,” says Marris.

She’s part of a new strand of environmentalism that is shifting the way we define nature. ‘Nature’ isn’t just found on a mountain scattered with longhorn sheep in a national park – it’s everywhere you encourage it to grow in wild abandon. “Rambunctious gardening is proactive and optimistic; it creates more and more nature as it goes, rather than just building walls around the nature we have left” [pg.3].

Why does how we define nature matter? Well, if we define nature as pristine, “out there” and largely unattainable (at least to most of us except on a special trip) in Serengeti National Park in Tanzania or Yellowstone National Park in America, then we “mourn” for those places which are gradually cut down, or are dwindling in size: “Like slivers of soap, they shrink and disappear. And we mourn. We are always mourning, because we can’t make more of such places,” says Emma Marris [pg.2].

It also means that we are left passively waiting for the government or a conservation agency to manage those areas for us because we can’t.

Instead of just putting a big fence around an increasingly shrinking garden, humans need to manage the entire earth as if it were our garden. Instead of mourning lost spaces, this approach empowers us to manage the earth better.

This is perhaps less of a revelation in England, where so much of the land is managed by humans and where land is grazed by sheep even in, say, a nature reserve. And it turns that while we might be tempted to think that 500 or 1000 years ago boars and bears would have roamed through dark forests, and knights would have sat on horseback silently filing through the forest paths on their way to some quest, that image is romantic, but wrong. In actual fact, when the Romans came to Britain, much of the land would have already been cleared of forest for millennia, likely as early as 1000 BCE. “England 3,000 years ago was already as suburban as the outskirts of Basildon,” says Hugh Thomson.

But for a Canadian who has taken canoe trips in ‘wild’ places that feel quite geographically remote from the impacts of humanity, it is sometimes harder to see a garden, or highway verge as nature with its own conservation value.

But what is pristine nature anyway? Yellowstone National Park, says Marris, is managed with the aim of restoring it to a ‘baseline’ a pristine wilderness prior to human intervention (except for First Nations peoples, of course, who lived in both Yosemite and Yellowstone until they were forcibly removed). She quotes a report written by scientists led by Starker Leopold in 1960 which said: “A national park should represent a vignette of primitive America” [pg.24]. This pristine wilderness approach has had a huge influence on conservation in America and internationally.

She points to a 250-square mile nature reserve set up in Australia for marsupials which uses 1770, the year Captain Cook and the invasive species like rabbits, cats and foxes that followed, arrived on the island, as its baseline. (Note that they didn’t attempt to baseline this to before Aborigines arrived as that was 40,000 years earlier and a little trickier, to put it lightly, to recreate). The park now houses a population of bridled nailtail wallabies, which is now the only backup reserve of the species. Obviously the park is playing a crucial role for the wallabies, but it is now heavily managed by humans – and will have to be indefinitely to keep the predators out and the marsupials safe. Is this park ‘wild’? Well, no. No more than my heavily managed garden is.

While bison or bear will never roam past my garden shed, it can provide a little slice of nature – nectar for a bee, a house for a bird, and some peace and tranquillity for me (at least until the kids come running out).