Say hello to science writer Emma Marris. Her first book, Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, covers a revolution in the field of ecology—an increasing awareness that the traditional goals of conservation are not only unachievable on a large scale but also too narrow. 

Read the last Garden Rant on the charm of chickens in Cluck.

Those goals largely focus on preserving pristine wildernesses by turning back the clock in them to an arbitrary “baseline” date before modern civilization, trailing exotic species, arrived at the door. However, given realities such as climate change, this frozen-in-time paradigm means that we are inevitably fighting a Sisyphean battle over tiny, tightly controlled preserves.

Marris’ view is more adult and more hopeful. She argues that the whole notion of “pristine wilderness” deserves to be questioned since humans have always altered the ecosystems around them; that nature is everywhere, constantly in flux; and that the field of ecology needs to address the long-ignored questions of inhabited landscapes. 

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When did you become aware that there was something wrong with the absolutism of the conservation movement?

It came out of casual conversations at the bar with scientists after a day spent reporting on a field trip or a convention. When they were up at the podium with their PowerPoints, they were talking about reverting to baselines. But I noticed that when we were talking informally, they would take a much more nuanced view. 

I’m glad that you decided to take on Bill McKibben. As a gardener, I’m highly offended by the assumption that all human influence on the planet is bad!

I really admire the way Bill McKibben has become an environmental activist and gotten people involved. But in his first book that really got attention, The End of Nature, it’s all or nothing, a perfectly pristine world, or it’s no good. That kind of thinking sets us up for a lifetime of mourning. 

I actually consider myself a net plus in any ecosystem lucky enough to have me.

It’s a no-brainer. As a gardener, you are increasing the diversity of plant species on your property. If you’re really clever, the soil ends up more nutritious and rich than when you began. You can also garden for many different conservation goals: to support wildlife, for carbon sequestration, or to preserve endangered species.

I was very interested to read your chapter on “novel ecosystems,” new human-influenced combinations of species that can work as well or better than native ecosystems. There is a lot of priggishness about exotics in the gardening world, and hysteria about “invasives,” some of which happen to be lovely country naturalizers where I live.

Gardeners are at the front lines of this battle. There are people who want exotics and people who don’t. That’s not to say that some plants aren’t real headaches—but in many cases, the label “invasive” is just prejudice. People want the landscape to be the way they remember it. But that is not tenable, and we have to ditch the idea. Otherwise, we’ll just be mad and frustrated all the time.

If you look at the novel forests in Hawaii, they are self-assembled. After an initial inoculation by introduced species, the plants are sorting themselves out. Nature will sort itself out, though in some places we’ll have to tweak a bit. But to put it back? Largely a futile quest.

It shouldn’t surprise us that there can be this happy co-existence between plants from all over the world. It happens in gardens everywhere. When it comes to land management, gardeners are the real experimenters, the world’s avant garde.

Michele Owens, a primary blogger at Garden Rant, is the author of the book Grow the Good Life: Why a Vegetable Garden Will Make You Happy, Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise, published by Rodale in February 2011. Her articles about gardening have appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine, Garden Design and Organic Gardening. She is a former political speechwriter and a joyful vegetable gardener of almost 20 years.