Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Book Review: "Rambunctious Garden" by Emma Marris

"Rambunctious Garden" by Emma Marris starts out as an excellent read on conservation issues around the world, but then takes an odd turn halfway through that sadly never returns to it's former greatness. Leave it to a chapter on invasive species to ruin a good thing. I wish the format of the book were laid out somewhat differently. For starters there are no pictures, which is a real issue considering the author traveled around the world. Did she really not bring a camera? Images would have helped when she talks about some of these invasive plants from foreign places. Plants are otherwise only mentioned by common name, and I consider that to be a serious no no when writing to an informed audience. Also she presents information in an odd way, her voice is more of a reporter and I get the feeling this was intended to be a documentary at one point because it doesn't always work in a novel format. This laid back reporter tone only makes the abrupt switch in tone more noticeable come chapter 6.

So Here's How it Went:
By the end of chapter one I honestly wanted to throw this book in the trash. Her argument that conservation is an arbitrary thing is interesting but lacks sufficient evidence early on to be taken seriously. She comes off more as someone attending a tour of a nature preserve who raises their hand and goes, "Well a million years ago there was ice a mile high where we're standing ... what's that say about your conservation efforts?" She's almost rude about it. I'll admit I never thought about conservation in as broad an historic sense as she talks about, but why bring it up at all? She might as well have elaborated that in dinosaurs once walked the earth, or even further and said the earth used to not exist. What is your point?

Following the old librarian rule that you have to read at least to page 50 before you can stop reading, I pressed on. Halfway though chapter two things started falling into place. I was getting it. Her argument is hard to talk about without a few examples, and to my delight it feels like she gives you 100 of them all while telling the history of the conservationist movement. Chapters 2 through 5 are an absolute delight to read. She tells the formation of Yellow Stone, she travels around the world looking at different ideas and concepts of conservation, all of which is fascinating and each one worthy of it's own book. She talks about issues facing conservation, why picking some date out of the history books is arbitrary given the history of the earth so far, and she makes each point beautify.

To elaborate, in North America the general definition of what we consider to be native. Most conservationists agree anything living in North America before Christopher Columbus first stepped food here is native. However, at the time North America was currently inhabited by more Native Americans than there were people living in Europe. Smallpox devastated 95% of their population in the first 100 years of interaction with European settlers! During the time prior to European colonization, Native Americans were setting fires across the continuant to make prairie land to boost game populations, and had already driven several large mammals into extinction. These large mammals interacted with the plant life here differently, distributing seeds, shaping the land, and functioning in ecosystems in ways now lost to history. In essence some of our native trees aren't as abundant today as they should be because the beast eating and distributing their seeds have gone extinct. Generally humans have had their hands in everything, everywhere on earth, and this idea of a pristine wilderness is a delusion at best. When Yellow Stone was first formed they had to relocate people off the park land, not just Native Americans, small towns worth of people were kicked out of their homes!

For many examples she's delivering a level of detail that's just shy of being compared to that found in Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. And one thing she makes clear is preserving this one glimpse of human history is a pipe dream at best. Issues like climate change are changing whole ecosystems, how much rain fall, the average temp, really drive home that at some point compromises have to be made. I wanted to read more about these complex issues facing so called pristine environments around the world! When one looks at the big picture we realize that the earth is still spinning, things are changing. What will the future ecosystem be in a given area? Sadly Chapter 6 comes along.

Chapter 6: Learning to Love Exotic Species. This chapter really breaks up the rhythm. It's 13 pages long and too ambitious. It's also where her dangerously vague definition of what native is severely hurts her integrity. The broad overview of the world only helps to blur the lines even more. If we're talking about plants native to a continent or mountain range, then I'm all for it's introduction, spreading, and incorporation in any environment or ecosystem reasonably adjacent to it's native range. Sadly the author never makes any such claims, and she might as well be talking about the environmental benefits sterile double flowering cultivars would be if planted on the moon. She's trying to say 'nature is all around us and worth exploring and protecting regardless of where we find it, and where it is from,' fine okay I can buy that. But this is so different idea than, 'here are issues facing conservationists today.'

We open with a vague example of an island getting logged, and replanted with nonnative plant somewhat picked at convenience. These faster growing nonnative trees supposidly saved 2 species of bird and 1 species of bad, hallelujah. But that is all the information we're given, end of story, moving on, stop asking questions, nonnatives are great, thank you, okay you really want to know... magic beans, moving on. There isn't any citation for this example at all. Could the bats and birds fly off of the island? If that's the case then really I don't think anyone would have cared had the island simply eroded away. Where those three species the only thing worth studying on the island?

She addresses invasive species in such an idiotic way. She mentions several of them in a single paragraph, giving a sentance worth of them to each. And she writes they're really not that big a deal because: trying to weed them out is a waste of money. And that Invasive species only cause extinctions on islands, in lakes, or in fragmented forests. The rest is mostly a series of success stories where fast growing aggressive introduced species benefiting the environment or were a waste of money to get rid of in the first place ... by which she means birds nest in trees, and don't care what kind of trees they are. The problem here is that birds will also nest along sky scrapers in New York City. All her examples lack sufficient evidence that nonnatives are superior to natives. She directly sites examples in Doug Tallamy's "Bringing Nature Home" as success stories for her claim. Nonnatives being imported simply as erosion control. The problem being ignored here is not enough people are growing/supplying or using the native plants that were preventing the hillside from eroding in the first place. (Prairie Moon Nursery sells a variety of native seed mixes that could be used as opposed to planting nothing but nonnative Scotch Broom.)
From here we find a series of examples where compromise turned out to be beneficial. Drilling nest holes into the sides of a cliff for birds so they have more places to reproduce and hopefully out compete the rats, for example. This is the kind of success story I don't mind becuase it's a cheap way to ignore (fix?) the problem of invasive rat species on islands. But these types of examples lack the sense of value and history conservationists try to preserve.

She goes on to support assisted migration. This is an interesting parallel here between intentionally introducing nonnative species. But that is hardly evidence that introduced species overall are beneficial to the environment. It's one thing to do it to save an endangered or threatened species, and quite another for mass marketed landscaping plants. The illegal pet trade and accidental introduction through human commerce are mixed in here someplace but not really addressed fully. Not that she needs to. Take your pick of life form and you can be sure someone's imported it.

Chapter 9: I think this is supposed to be read as an enlightening kayak trip down a river teaming with introduced species, factories polluting the waters, and conservation projects all going on at once. Besides reflecting the world as it is, I don't think this chapter had it's intended impact on me. Basically she comes to the conclusion that we have to incorporate nature into our lives.

The last chapter reads as a laundry list of goals one can have towards plants. I thought it was a waste of paper, got bored after goal #6 and stopped reading after that. 

Forests are fragmented to the point that their ecosystems are islands. That's why invasive species are bad and people should be doing more to fight them, not ignore them! When someone tracks mud through your house you don't throw up your arms and never clean the mess. Perhaps comparing invasives would be better compared to a hotel infested with cockroaches. You'll never be rid of them unless everyone allows their apartment to be sprayed with insecticide. If one person refuses then the cockroaches have a safe harbor and eventually will infest the whole building again, it's hopeless. But this is such a limited view. We should ask, why is this species invasive? The answer is, as the author tries to say, it's because it's doing what it would normally be doing in nature. It's thriving in an environment where it's absolutely flourishing.

The difference between a nature preserve and your front lawn is competition. Your front lawn is doing everything land after a massive forest fire, mud slide, or volcanic eruption would do. It's a disturbed environment with lots of open spaces that need filling. Weather it's native or not, aggressive plant species are going to show up and try and fill those holes. The longterm process of succession is about to commence. As the author points out during the time of the book I liked, some of these trees live for 1,400+ years! Climate change has been found to interrupt some of these species and we find places where the oldest of these tree species are only ~700 years old.

Another issue that the author doesn't address is that there a coloration between the % of species and the % of land available. If we lose 1% of land then we lose 1% of the species there. Condoning nonnative species to establish, weather they're behaving aggressively or not, they eventually kick out other species. Often because native insects don't recognize them as palatable something is lost, weather it's the quantity of the insect, or the insect's prescience there entirely. The author seems to think insects and diseases will eventually catch up with them, either by importation or one of the indigenous species taking a liking to them suddenly. And that's true enough but that doesn't mean we should let it have free reign over the continent for 500 years or more waiting for it to happen. What's more such plants are not worth protecting as the author suggests! To be fair she's talking about trees in general, not aggressive species in particular; basically nature deserves protecting despite it's content of origin. What's lacking with this idea is standards, value, and any real vision. I guess that's what chapter 10's list of goals is trying to get at, but her treatment of nonnatives, and invasive plants especially, really cripples the idea in my mind. Imagine a nature preserve that's comprised of Kudzu blanketing over dead trees it's turned into topiary corpses.