Sunday, August 2, 2015

Pollan's Nativism Needs a Major Refresh

I recently reread Michael Pollan's 1994 essay "Against Nativism." In it he argues against a loud minority (a minority I float in and out of freely depending on the topic) who, according to him, believes the following:

A vocal army of designers and taste makers has decreed that the “new American garden” is henceforth a place that:
1. Outlaws any human artifice in its design;
2. Grants citizenship exclusively to native plants (any immigrant to be treated as “flora non grata,” with “invasive aliens” subject to deportation);
3. Resembles as closely as possible the “presettlement” American landscape of its particular region; and
4. Guarantees the right of self-determination to all its flora and (nonhuman) fauna, and bans the “brutal” practice of pruning.

This list could not be more out of date. Maybe two decades ago, when the native plant movement was certainly in its infancy -- and as wildly disparate viewpoints from all over the place were being expressed as it tried to find its footing -- it seemed more "radical." There are plenty of folks who find my belief in the wildlife value and design potential of straight species native plants radical and limiting, and particularly my philosophical and ethical reasons for doing so in a time of climate change and extinctions, but the design of native plant landscapes is not as rigid -- and should not be -- as Pollan assumes. Let's go through each point:

1. You can't avoid human artifice in design. The very act of creating a garden is artifice. Once you arrange plants according to your aesthetic and / or site requirements (the latter is often quite different than a wild, natural site), artifice is the name of the game. Naturalistic garden designers (or New Perennial or New American) try to blend human needs with environmental and wildlife needs, echoing and evoking that natural landscape which the plants came from. But even I don't believe we can have prairie in the city in the way it exists on the Plains; I do think we could replace lawns and seed in prairie for some cool habitat and effect, but that prairie would exist, work, and be managed much differently than one outside the city limits. 

2. Yes, I design with as close to 100% native plants as I can, and I believe we should all strive for this goal. Wildlife has co-evolved with those plants, the plants call us out into the wilds of our home places and connect / awaken us to the place we supposedly love and respect, and we do not know better than nature. I believe a hosta or daylily or lilac and even butterfly bush are dead zones for wildlife, especially pollinators, and deny life instead of providing it. But I'm not going to personally condemn someone for having these plants if the majority of the remaining landscape is in native plants -- even if I'd love to see the remaining landscape fully used by natives for maximum benefit. We have to have an ideal goal in mind, a reach that outstretches our grasp by miles, to get to an even better place; if the goal or reach is only halfway, then the reality will be even less then it could be.

3. Once again, a designed garden is an evocation and an interpretation. It may use the same plants as presettlement / annihilation / eradication -- it may even copy the plant communities in ecological design -- but it can almost never be the exact landscape that was lost. The reasons for that are complex, starting with the loss of soil life, urban pollution and heat island effects, all the way to having to create landscapes that function for people as well as wildlife in an almost infinite array of configurations, from parks to hellstrips, to suburban yards to road edges to businesses, and to storm water mitigation and treatment.

4. In a human landscape you have to prune woody plants -- from reasons involving safety to design. I do advocate letting perennials self sow, letting plants move around a bit to find their way and teach us about what they want and how they act. A garden is not a static sculpture, it is alive and evolving, rich with the chaos of fractal geometry which helps it evolve, grow, and exercise itself in a web of life. We are free to pluck seedlings if we wish, or move them about -- it is a garden, after all, not a "wild" prairie or forest.

There are many other points I could argue, especially Pollan's idea that plants move around naturally, so who cares if exotics mix with natives (yet never before have they moved so quickly and thoroughly as during the last century or two, and never before with such blindness and narrow-minded purpose / hubris as to the effects that such movement causes).  Pollan wants multihorticlturalism, but shockingly in that view Pollan is part and parcel of the system that has severely diminished biodiversity, leapt without thinking or knowing, and works primarily to seek immediate human good first and everything else second -- even if everything else contributes to our long term good. For someone so aware of the agricultural issues of our culture, it's a surprise and a travesty. 

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Oh, Prairie Flowers!

Two weeks ago I read from my Oklahoma memoir at the Iowa Prairie Conference, along with John Price, Mary Swander, and Elizabeth Dodd (what fun people and great writers!). I was able to tour plantings the Tallgrass Prairie Center is working on at the UNI campus, as well as their production plots and cool seed cleaning room. Then I visited my folks in Minnesota and their 2-3 acres of prairie restoration -- following is some of what I found in the land of 14,000 lakes (for more, follow me on Instagram:

Monarda, Verbena, Ratibida, Bluestem
Ironweed
Grey-Headed Coneflower
The sunsets were pretty good.
How many monarchs do you see?
Sweet joe pye weed.
Oh, those sunsets.
Did I mention the sunsets?


Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Happy Birthday to Me and the Garden -- 2015

It's my annual navel gazing day. The garden is 8 and I am, well, much older than it. I want to start with an excerpt from my unpublished memoir, Turkey Red, which I rediscovered this week, then share pics (in collage format to save space -- click on them to embiggen):

There’s an emptiness in the Plains. It’s not a literal emptiness because it is our absence which is most present. And yet our existence has redefined the absence: you can get lost in a corn field, lay down in the wheat and just vanish—no one will ever find you.


It’s a dangerous thing being lost to the horizon. Walking any open field we are both compass point and sun dial, searching for home in the time allotted us on this earth. At most we will discover that while alive we’re as ethereal as a memory. Cross paths with a mountain lion or sandhill crane or butterfly or prairie dog and we will know the silence we carry inside, the silence we insist upon field after field. There’s nothing here because we made it so. Our absence is present in the rows stretching to infinity off the highways and county roads.

But stop. A dung beetle is moving from shadow to shadow underneath the sunflowers, pushing its brown marble over pebbles, past cracks, and through thick brush. When I was a kid I’d sit near an ant hill—the inverse funnel pushing out ants like a great heart pumping blood. Each body scatters in every direction, following the marked trails out beyond the center of their lives. Can you imagine being an ant or a dung beetle? Can you imagine? You have never been anything else, following the narrow path laid out for you, but pushing your burdens before you like they were the only treasure you’d ever had. When we enter the earth from another perspective we become our truest selves—we give up the right to take away other lives and enter into an unwritten contract that we signed at our births. We are here, made of the same stuff as everything else. We are here for only a moment, too, already absent in our presence until we go mad with the terror of our short lives and break the contract. The only way to rewrite ourselves is to walk the horizon until the prairie comes back. 









Monday, July 13, 2015

Listening to an Oklahoma Windmill

This weekend my great aunt passed away, the youngest of a large family where only two sisters remain. I will be forever indebted to her for her memories as I researched a memoir on Oklahoma -- though with fewer experiences being the youngest, it was in a lot of ways her voice and thoughts that got me the closest to my grandmother and her early life. Exploring Oklahoma as an estranged adult -- someone who once hated the state and whose heart sank crossing the Kansas border -- I never asked my grandmother the questions I most needed answered (the questions I only began to come to in her last months through a cache of photographs). 

My journey into Oklahoma and the prairie, Mennonites and Cheyenne and oil and manifest destiny, is far from over -- yet the people who can make that journey richer are all but gone. So many little stories from one moment to the next in our lives, and 99.9% of it is erased seconds later, the truth hazier and less true with each breath. 

The story I will most remember is driving the backroads of red-dirt wheat fields in the fall of 2009. My great aunt said that, while growing up, you could know whose farm you were on by the sound of the windmill; that on still nights she could not fall asleep, only able to drift off once the breeze picked up and the windmill began turning, creaking. Moments later she told me the low German Mennonite words for "chicken shit." Listen to the windmills in your life -- but don't fall asleep, stay awake, strain to hear the pattern, live harder in a place for every second you can.

Marjorie Janzen Heinrichs on the left.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Befriending Our Pain, Having Courage, Loving the World

Joanna Macy continues to blow my mind, saying things I've been trying to say but doing so out of more patience, wisdom, forgiveness, and lived life.

"We need to befriend our pain about the condition of the world, and not treat that feeling as an enemy to our cheerfulness... Tell me your despair and I'll tell you mine... and the world becomes more vivid... because we had the courage, the strength to speak of our despair... because we speak it we don't stay there.... despair is the covering for the love of our world [that we need to crack].... don't be afraid of pain or the world's suffering... and if you aren't afraid of it then nothing can stop you." Full vid here.

I have long been angry with those who tell me to be happy, or look at the happy side of things, as if pain is not as worthy an emotion, as if it also does not open doors to happiness -- perhaps in some ways a more profound and connected happiness than the somewhat antiseptic version our American myths push on us (consumerism and possession for one). 

Certainly, I'm not making light of those who struggle with real depression and succumb to it, but I am saying that for the majority of us pain, anger, and despair let us know we are alive and that we care -- these "negative" feelings alert us to something that is wrong and open the door to compassion for all life. The bonds we break, the emotions we ignore, divorce us from the awesome beauty and connectivity of life on this rare world.  Be angry about oil pipelines and prairie destruction. Be forlorn about the loss of pollinators and coral reefs. Be so sad you know this world from every angle and can, on the flip side, make a profound difference and heal. 



Sunday, June 28, 2015

And Justice For All Species

Now that we're starting to see more social justice and equality, let's keep the ball rolling. Our next big task is environmental justice, not just the fact that climate change will adversely impact the poor, but that it will decimate (and is decimating) entire ecosystems and species. When we can hold bees and birds in our hands and be transformed by the miracle of compassion that touch brings, when we can be transformed by the same between two men or two women, then it is not a far step to extend our compassion to all creatures on this rare and glorious planet. We are all equal, all key components in a rich web of hope, compassion, and freedom. Stand up for each other. Fight for equality and the right for all to live out their lives as they're designed to do.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Some Prairie

I was at The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies field day on Friday; it was almost picture perfect with good temps and passing clouds with blue sky (after some light rain in the morning). Lot's of trips out into the prairie to see birds, insects, fish, amphibians, learn about restoration efforts, and to hear moi discussing prairie loss and how thoughtfully-designed gardens can help pollinators and bring some of the prairie home. So, just a few images I took with the phone (I'm getting in the nasty habit of not bringing real cameras with me):

Verbena stricta

A native annual barley

Common milkweed with sun hitting the prairie sand dunes

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Busy Bees in Tall Stems

This is the first year I left "unsightly" stems very high in my garden during the late April cut down. Common advice says to cut things down to about 6", but that erases possible homes for our many native bees. With 2' stems all over the place, and all covered by dense garden foliage, I can hear the garden as bees pulse and buzz in stems all over the place.


Do you see any stems in this image? I guarantee that you can hear them, though (if the lawnmowers ever stop).


Friday, June 19, 2015

Pollinators & Garden Beauty

Earlier this month the Lincoln Journal Star published an editorial on pollinators -- the issues surrounding their decline, especially here in Nebraska. The focus was on honey bees, so I had to send in a reply which won't be published, but I leave here for you to read. Look for a longer piece in a future issue of Prairie Fire.



I applaud the Journal Star editorial board for continuing to bring attention to the plight of our pollinating insects, and especially the loss of prairie which has only been exacerbated with the decrease in CRP funding associated with the most recent farm bill. We also need to stop mowing our highway edges more than 1-2 times a year, and plant native pollinator gardens at home, at businesses, and even on capitol grounds. 

However, European honey bees are responsible for so much commercial pollination because we’ve made that the case. It takes 60% of all U.S. hives to pollinate just the almond crop in California, and the stress of shipping them across the country surely exacerbates their troubles, as well as the lack of diverse flower forage. This agricultural practice is a dangerous monoculture that supports other dangerous monocultures, systems which diminish diversity and a landscape’s health and resiliency. Yes, helping honey bees will help so much more, especially if this means fewer lawns and more prairies, but we have 4,000 native bee species, too.

These native bees are, collectively, over 90% efficient at flower pollination whereas honey bees are only 70% efficient. Many native bees have evolved very specific relationships with native plants – in some cases, the absence of one leads to the absence of the other. The more bees of all species we have pollinating, the higher the fruit yield, the better the quality, and the longer the shelf life at grocery stores (I’m especially thinking about produce like strawberries that require a diversity of pollinators to set fruit). 

The Xerces Society has recently begun a pilot program on about 100 acres of almond groves in California, planting the edges with native hedgerows and underplanting the trees in a meadow of wildlfowers – the goal is to end the dependence on honey bees, reduce water consumption, and mitigate the need to spray for pests. We should also look to the Prairie STRIPs program at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. 

Here in Nebraska, and Lincoln specifically, I’d love to see us become the prairie capitol of the nation: prairie along road edges following the lead of New Mexico and Iowa, native plants in our garden beds and in the new pedestrian mall downtown, and one side of the state building in designed prairie gardens vs. a desert of lawn. Our lives, and the lives of other species, may depend upon a new landscape aesthetic that incorporates both human concepts of beauty and unseen ecological function that supports native bees, monarch butterflies, and far more; what we need is a beauty that extends to species beyond our own.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Art of Selfless Garden Design

After reading this article on the moral imperative of renewable energy, and being fueled by the Pope's call to ethical rethinking of nature -- I feel lots of momentum regarding how we interact with nature on personal, emotional, cultural, scientific, and ethical levels; it's as if everything is coming together! Here are my thoughts.

I think there’s a myth out there that good garden design for humans can not also be good garden design for other species (and other humans, in the case of filtering groundwater, cleaning the air, etc). It’s not an either or proposition.

Speaking in generalizations, garden designers, to me, feel beholden to a function and a style that comes from another time and another country; maybe it’s 1700s England or 1600s France. An outdoor space isn’t just a room to relax in, to escape to, to express our status -- it is a bridge between the world we hold at bay in almost every moment and our incomplete selves that hunger for contact with nature. This is where the theory of biophilia comes in – that we have an innate need to connect with the living world around us. Do gardens that inhibit other lives and biological functions fill that need? 


We gain completeness through experience and knowledge. When I began learning about native plants I felt more in control of my garden-making process – I wasn’t picking up any old thing at a nursery, letting current trends or tired choices (hello, hosta) be my guiding light; no, I was beginning to understand how plants interact with the world, how they are part of a larger system, not just a cog in the wheel but integral fibers of muscle and tissue. When I realized I could be a part of that fiber by how I gardened and what I learned through more informed plant choices, I was generally happier, more confident, and more passionate about life than in any other point of my short existence. I fully realized my garden mattered as much to me as it did to bees – that collectively all of our gardens mattered so very much.  

Gardening is therapy? Yes, but not just in the sense of walking through a flowering meadow or dipping toes into a babbling creek to calm our nerves ; gardening is therapy in the sense that it circumvents the cultural systems we’ve made up that say there’s a hierarchy, a certain way to do things, universal beliefs that are tried and true. Gardening shatters the wall between rich and poor, gay and straight, black and white, human and monarch butterfly. Maybe gardening is for radicals in the sense that when we become empowered advocates who study, observe, and nurture open curiosity, we challenge the exploitative systems that hurt our world and ourselves.


Designed landscapes can be for us – utilitarian in their sidewalks and fruiting trees, gorgeous in their flowers and foliage – but there’s no reason in the world that at the same time they can’t be places for birds to raise their young, butterflies to lay eggs, bees to forage for nests, and soil life to flourish. To think that gardens are just for us is self-defeating and selfish, and is simply a lack of imagination; I even believe it’s an inability to extend our ethical circles in some really cool ways that would enlighten and heal many of our cultural and social problems. If nature calms us, if nature helps us recover from illness faster, if nature eases ADHD, why can’t gardens also help us see through another’s eyes, champion equal rights and equal pay, become the people we dream ourselves to be in our best moments (like those stories that end every news broadcast).

A designed landscape that does not see beyond the human is a landscape that is devoid of the human – it’s devoid of forgiveness, mercy, hope, equality, and community. 

Human art is an attempt to express the inexpressible, a way to bridge how we interpret the world emotionally, how we internalize and experience life, what we value in our most authentic moments of reflection and connection. Plants themselves are not art. What we do with them -- how we honor their life processes in a garden -- that's art.


Prairie smoke doing its thing.
“Lilacs disconnect one’s yard from the prairie that is around and so disconnect our lives from reckoning with the real wonders of the grassland. The Nebraska plain is not barren, after all.”
-- Richard Manning

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Quote of the Century

I will never apologize. You shouldn't either. Feel.

"We are capable of suffering with our world, and that is the true meaning of compassion. It enables us to recognize our profound interconnectedness with all beings. Don't ever apologize for crying for the trees burning in the Amazon or over the waters polluted from mines in the Rockies. Don't apologize for the sorrow, grief, and rage you feel. It is a measure of your humanity and your maturity. It is a measure of your open heart, and as your heart breaks open there will be room for the world to heal. That is what is happening as we see people honestly confronting the sorrows of our time." — Joanna Macy

Sunday, June 7, 2015

A Very Wet Spring

I think we're up to about 14" of rain in the last 5 weeks. The front prairie garden -- composed off 100% drought tolerant natives -- is languishing. Out back things are thick, lush, and breeding mosquitoes by the truck load. Chiggers will be next. Still, there are reasons to celebrate.


Arrowwood viburnum and indian grass

Shell leaf penstemon

Baptisia autralis minor

The front beds. A soggy mess with mulch floating away.

Pasque flower seed heads. Better than blooms.

Leave those cut plant stems high! Many native bees buzzing in and out.

My wife's PhD graduation gift. Can't believe it's been a year.

And I leave you with this thought:

“Lilacs disconnect one’s yard from the prairie that is around and so disconnect our lives from reckoning with the real wonders of the grassland. The Nebraska plain is not barren, after all.”
-- Richard Manning

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Creating Art as a Way to Grieve, Heal, & Connect With Nature


I was reading this interview and kept thinking about gardens and garden making -- especially with wildlife and ecological function in mind. What do you think?

"Humans desire, more than anything else, to be creative, and we desire to participate in the creative processes, in the future and in life—that’s what having children is about. But we can be life-generating in a variety of ways—creative, participatory, oriented toward something larger than ourselves. What is larger than ourselves that we really care about? It’s Life, as far as I can see. We are on the verge of knowing how to express comprehensive gratitude, acknowledging that we are dwelling within a living system. This gives rise to a sense of resonance with lifeforms that certainly earlier peoples understood, and native peoples still do. This is a new moment for our awakening to the beauty of life that is now in our hands. And because we are life-giving humans and care about our children and their children and future generations of all species, I think the universe story can sustain us and inspire us in so many ways yet to be fully discovered [....]"

"My greatest hope would be that these life systems are so powerful, are themselves so resilient, that we can take inspiration from the natural world and its fantastic, intriguing mystery and complexity. In this way, our own generativity can become woven into the vibrant communities that constitute the vast symphony of the universe. There are hundreds of thousands of people on the planet who are aware and ready and already participating in this epic story. They want to help write the story into its future, participate in its unfolding, so that we get through this hourglass of loss and extinction, of sorrow and mourning. We need to articulate this sorrow and ritualize our grieving; the humanities can help us do that. But we need to create, in this hugely difficult birth passage, new ways of being vibrant and mutually enhancing creatures on this planet."

-- Mary Evelyn Tucker interviewed in Orion May / June 2015