BOOK REVIEW: Rambunctious Garden, Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World 

 By Emma Marris, reviewed by John McFerrin

           Much of what the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy does involves land management. Should our state parks be managed for timber production? (No!) How should the National Forest be managed? Is the Forest Service leaning too far toward timber production or too far away from wildlife preservation? We do advocacy around all those issues.

That’s what makes this book interesting. It looks at our assumptions about land management and encourages us to do the same.

The book makes much effort questioning the goal of our management of the natural world, whether that be a national forest, a designated Wilderness area, or any other land. She describes the traditional goal in management of natural areas as seeking to achieve something approximating a pristine state of nature, something that existed before humans. 

            After defining this as the goal, she advocates tossing it aside. What was pristine and when did it exist? Does that mean before Europeans arrived? Should we manage with a goal of making natural areas look as they did in 1491? What then of the Native Americans? While not doing so on the scale or intensity of the Europeans, the Native Americans altered the landscape intentionally, burning patches of forest to create cropland or better hunting lands.

            Before the Native Americans? Is that the “pristine” we should manage for? That world included giant mammals—wooly mammoths, giant sloths, etc., animals which went extinct about the time the Native Americans arrived. (There is a dispute over how much the Native Americans had to do with the extinction. She favors the theory that the early Americans crossed over from Asia to find a continent full of big, trusting animals which they hunted to extinction. There are other opinions.)

            Ms. Marris’s view is that chasing the idea that we can restore some sort of pristine wilderness is a fool’s errand. We should quit doing it. Absent some sort of Jurassic Park level genetic magic, we are not bringing back the world as it existed before humans. She says that there is no ideal condition that we should have as our goal. Things are always changing; many of the species we now accept as part of our natural world were once invasive. She would favor embracing what is here.

            In West Virginia, we have already tossed aside the idea that something must be pristine to be protected. The Dolly Sods Wilderness is far from pristine; it was heavily logged before it became a Wilderness. Even if we are not demanding that land must be pristine to be protected, Ms. Marris’s overall point is still valid: the goal of management is a cultural value. In deciding how we are to manage lands and the goals of management we are expressing that value.

            Her enthusiasm for embracing what is here leads her to an unconventional view of invasive species. Conventional wisdom is that invasive species displace native plants, reduce biodiversity, etc., and should be eradicated, if possible. Her view is that invasive species are inevitable. A species may be an invader but it is one that wants to live here. She also cites research suggesting that invasive species may come to dominate in the short term but, in the long term, the rest of the ecosystem will adjust. Kudzu (not her example) may have its day (or its century) but in the long run the rest of the ecosystem will find a way to smack it down, put it in its place.

            Coloring all of this is climate change. As the climate continues to change, the species that are here now will have to adapt, move, or die out. It would be doubly hard to manage for certain kinds of ecosystems when those ecosystems are being driven out by climate change.

            On one level, this approach to land management is appealing. If the landscape is being changed by invasive species, climate change, or whatever, we should accept the changes, embrace whatever comes.

            The danger in this approach is that it makes it too easy to do nothing. Kudzu may eventually become less dominant, but do we want a couple of centuries of it covering everything in its path, strangling trees? It is true that, if we cut down the big, old trees, the forest would adjust, something would take their place. But do we want to do without the ecosystem that the big old trees were a part of? Managing with a goal of restoring some sort of pristine world may be a fool’s errand but neither do we want to do nothing.