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The Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World

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A paradigm shift is roiling the environmental world. For decades people have unquestioningly accepted the idea that our goal is to preserve nature in its pristine, pre-human state. But many scientists have come to see this as an outdated dream that thwarts bold new plans to save the environment and prevents us from having a fuller relationship with nature. Humans have changed the landscapes they inhabit since prehistory, and climate change means even the remotest places now bear the fingerprints of humanity. Emma Marris argues convincingly that it is time to look forward and create the "rambunctious garden," a hybrid of wild nature and human management.

In this optimistic book, readers meet leading scientists and environmentalists and visit imaginary Edens, designer ecosystems, and Pleistocene parks. Marris describes innovative conservation approaches, including rewilding, assisted migration, and the embrace of so-called novel ecosystems.

Rambunctious Garden is short on gloom and long on interesting theories and fascinating narratives, all of which bring home the idea that we must give up our romantic notions of pristine wilderness and replace them with the concept of a global, half-wild rambunctious garden planet, tended by us.

209 pages, Hardcover

First published August 30, 2011

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Emma Marris

4 books45 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 124 reviews
Profile Image for Grace.
203 reviews5 followers
August 20, 2019
Marris sets her book up as an argument against traditional conservation. The basis for her arguments rest on her incorrect assumption that environmentalists and conservationists revere “pristine” and “untouched” land and wilderness above all else, that historical baselines for such landscapes are arbitrary and meaningless, because humans have transformed the entire face of the earth anyway, so what is the point in trying to restore native species when exotics can fill these niches so much better and faster? This kind of thinking is hugely ignorant, short-sighted, and ultimately destructive to struggling ecosystems.

I am not a professional ecologist, but I do consider myself fairly well-read and a little more knowledgeable than the average person in this area. There are very few people nowadays who believe in the idea of pristine and untouched wilderness. Marris appears to be working off of a very outdated idea in conservation. Most scientists, environmentalists, conservationists and nature writers do very much acknowledge the fact that most land, even that which we consider “wild”, has been touched in some way by humans.

One of my biggest issues with this book is the author’s sneering at the idea of “invasive species” (a term she frequently puts in quotes) and she urges us to embrace non-native exotics, giving a few examples of places where exotics have allegedly improved and strengthened biodiversity (but conveniently ignoring the many examples of exotics invading and degrading other ecosystems— why no discussion of the exotics let loose in the Florida Everglades?). This displays an exceptionally poor understanding of the value of native plants in their native environments and the animal and insect life that depend on native flora, especially specialist insects whose lives literally depend on the plants they have co-evolved with for thousands or millions of years.

This book contains bad science, is poorly written and researched, and as such was a slog to get through. It is ignorant and presents some fairly destructive ideas about nature. It strikes me as the type of book to appeal to those with a very limited understanding of ecology, and whose ecological views are informed by fear mongering headlines in mainstream media. There are better books about “saving nature in a post-wild world” that are well written and researched and far more optimistic than this book. My first recommendation is to read Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy to gain a better understanding of the hugely important role that native plants play— an engaging, optimistic, fact based book about native North American ecosystems and the insect and bird life that depend on them. I would encourage those who enjoyed this book to read Tallamy and then decide whether they still like or agree with Marris’ views.

Profile Image for Adam.
996 reviews196 followers
November 30, 2014
Rambunctious Garden represents a kind of postmodern coming-of-age for the restoration ecology movement. Most readers interpret the book as a straightforward critique of the movement and its ideas, and the often condescending tone Marris takes lends itself to that reading. Viewed through that lens, most of the book seems to be looking down on someone, but it's never clear on whom and from where. It's each of the critiques that Morris explores was developed by a member of the conservation community. They are environmental historians, ecologists, wildlife gardeners, and conservation policy makers from governments and NGOs. It would be easy to assume that the lay public is the target of Marris's scorn. But of course, it's hard to imagine a book and simply dedicated to castigating readers over their ignorance of environmental philosophy ever reaching the presses.

The book is better understood as a summary of recent philosophical developments within the movement itself. Marris begins by deconstructing ideas foundational to Western ideas about nature—the human-nature dichotomy, the pristine/wilderness myth, the obsession with the grandiose and romantic landscape at the expense of urban and suburban nature. Critiquing these ideas is nothing new—Bill Cronon's pioneering essay “The Trouble with Wilderness” came out in 1995—so Marris is basically just bringing everyone up to speed here.

Her biggest dead horse is the baseline concept. When planning restoration projects, historical baselines are usually chosen, and for good reason. Historic ecosystems are the best shorthand we have for a system that 1) works in a place 2) achieves ecosystem services 3) includes places for endangered native species 4) conserves biodiversity 5) provides spiritual and aesthetic values. In short, it achieves every item on the list of goals Marris compiles at the end of the book, without risking the introduction of new species or the loss of old ones. While there are plenty of issues with the baseline concept, I don't think Marris was entirely fair to those who use it. Having recently read the Historical Ecology Handbook, I know that the process of identifying a baseline reveals a complex pastiche that offers prescriptions that are ambiguous at best and conflicting at worst. All that said, I do of course agree that reinstating a historical Eden with humans in harmony with nature is absurd and counterproductive—I just think that Marris overlooks the utility of the concept in her zeal.

The rest of the book explores interesting case studies in which people are deviating from the classic conservation/restoration formula and getting promising results, from the Pleistocene restoration park in the Netherlands to urban rewilding efforts that acknowledge the potential for restoration to coexist with industrial uses. I was disappointed that, though she referenced Nature's Matrix, she didn't explore the potential for novel ecosystems to be food producing ones (which, fyi, is my graduate research interest, possibly with the authors of that awesome book). Permaculturists have a lot of possibly interesting things to say about the design of novel ecosystems for the Anthropocene. Interestingly, they may be excluded simply because they are not part of the academic conservation/restoration community—reinforcing the point that Marris is not critiquing the movement from the outside, but just describing trends within the community.

Her conclusion is simply a list of the possible goals of restoration and conservation and a brief summary of the issues with each. The take home message is simply that we can't allow ourselves to become rigidly bound by any of single framework, instead adopting a pragmatic approach that analyzes the opportunities and costs and benefits of each situation on its own merits. So while I didn't learn anything new (the bibliography reads like a list of the relevant books I read last year, even including Richard Hobbs' restoration theory anthology--this is the problem with reading too much pop science), Rambunctious Garden is valuable as a self-reflection of the state of restoration thinking. It elegantly sums up most of the revelations and insights I've had on the subject and points in the direction I would like to be heading. In that sense, it would be very valuable as a resource for people curious about what I'd like to be doing and how I think about it. It would just be nice if her tone didn't convey the sense that she's smashing conventional wisdom and exposing fuddy-duddies. We're all on the same team here.

For pure self-aggrandizement, my reviews of most of her sources:








Profile Image for Amy.
415 reviews7 followers
April 24, 2017
The seeds of a good book are here, but too often the writer misunderstands human impact on nature as human control of nature:

We are already running he whole Earth, whether we admit it or not. To run it consciously and effectively, we must admit our role and even embrace it. [p.2]

Unintended consequences, anyone? The idea that because humans are arguably part of "Nature," anthropogenic change of pretty much any kind is no problem leads to some real clunkers, like the author's conviction that it is OK to sit back and watch Western U.S. landscapes burn while we wait for the ecosystems to "adapt" to cheatgrass, or an unquestioning acceptance of policy in the UK where "National Parks and nature reserves are often intensively grazed by cattle and sheep" (George Monbiot, "Feral" calls these same landscapes "sheepwrecked"), or this rather horrifying idea:

Europeans weren't an invasive species, because American Indians were already here. They were just an invasive lineage. [p.108]

The parts that argue for a gardening metaphor as a basis to re-wild working landscapes are actually pretty good, but this would have been a far better book if the author had spent less time setting up a straw man of "pristine wilderness" and discovered before page 136 that "Protected areas like Yellowstone are not the wrong model, but a crucial part of an expanded model."

Addendum: Reading "Half-Earth: Our Planet's Fight for Life" by E. O. Wilson. "The Rambunctions Garden" is specifically mentioned in the chapter "The Most Dangerous Worldview." Wilson says "this assault on wilderness is based on an etymological error" since wilderness does not need to be pristine to serve the purpose of conserving biodiversity. He also notes, "It has been my impression that those most uncaring and prone to be dismissive of the wildlands and the magnificent biodiversity these lands still shelter are quite often the same people who have had the least personal experience with either." [Half-Earth p. 79]
Profile Image for Ben.
59 reviews5 followers
June 15, 2019
There are some other good, critical reviews of this flawed book here already. The author has in my view given us a badly written book about some very interesting topics.

Restoration ecology and the irreversible changes we have wreaked on many ecosystems are interesting to me, anyway. I work in restoration ecology and weed management and I have a botany degree. The material presented here includes many of the academic discussions I came across in my studies. And they are important discussions.

However, the author uses straw figures, as noted in other reviews, and misunderstands the concept of "baselines". The principal straw figure is of conservation biologists all romantically and quixotically wishing to turn back to the clock to a mythical pre-human ecological Eden. I have come across very few people who actually think like that, certainly almost none who have studied the subject in depth. And Marris really doesn't give us the references to demonstrate that this purported view is common let alone dominant in the field.

The accusation that all these conservation and restoration ecologists are using historical baselines as a target is likewise unsubstantiated. In reality, a baseline is something you measure from, and that's how we use it. We don't expect to eradicate every single weed and feral animal in every single nature reserve, but you need some kind of baseline to measure change from, and no-one has really proposed a more practical one than the historical pre-disturbance ecosystem (as much as we know what it is).

Of course, novel ecosystems should be studied. The impact of new and invasive species is a large field of study. How do the old organisms cope with the invaders? What new mutualisms form? But it doesn't need a veneer of confected controversy to make this discussion interesting. I was relieved that Marris doesn't quite stray into the territory of claiming that everything is equally valid and who cares what your ecosystem looks like, a shallow postmodern kind of ecological relativism. It did appear at the start of the book it might be heading that way, but it actually improves toward the end.

For a science writer, Marris is remarkable lax with her references. Sometimes a bold assertion is hung on her report of an informal conversation with a single conservation professional she spoke to. That's not enough to base an accusation that the whole field is missing some important point: where are the published articles that get it wrong? Or that fail to mention her important point? You get the feeling that ecologists are being verballed.

As another reviewer noted, it was sad that it took so long to admit that "wilderness" conservation reserves like Yellowstone are important. At other times she is horribly disparaging to the people who manage conservation reserves, trying to rhetorically contrast them as sad, staid and declining in comparison with her "rambunctious" novel ecosystems that are overrun with invasive species. Really, a sad rhetorical device.

I don't know if it is worth reading this book, it has been somewhat influential, and does make some points well enough in among the extravagant rhetoric and hype. There has to be a better summary of this field, though.
Profile Image for Meghan.
227 reviews
May 22, 2014
Well told and very convincing.

A few passages I liked:

"Everything has been tainted. Nature as a separate thing has ended. For environmentalists like McKibben, the pristineness rule has been made very strict. A single rusty hubcap tucked under the ferns, a wildfire observation station visible on the horizon, a species moved, an atmosphere heated, a forest felled two hundred years ago—it doesn’t take much to chase away 'nature' if nature must be perfectly 'untouched' or 'pristine.' Having erected an impossible vision of purity as their ideal, such thinkers are doomed to perpetual disappointment. There can never be any more of this kind of nature, because once touched by humans, it is ruined for eternity. As McKibben says, 'All we can do is make it less bad than it will otherwise be.'"

"'Do we value the fact that nature contains a list of things that were here a thousand years ago, or do we value it because it has its own processes that are not under human control?' asks Mascaro. 'The value I get from nature is seeing things happen naturally. Seeing that they include parts that humans moved around doesn’t devalue it for me.' As the Earth responds to the changes we humans have made, does it make sense to destroy ecosystems that thrive under the new conditions? As Lugo says, 'This is nature’s response to what we have done to it.' Novel ecosystems may be our best hope for the future, as their components adapt to the human-dominated world using the time-tested method of natural selection. Could we hope to do any better than nature in managing and arranging our natural world for a warmer, more populous future?"
Profile Image for Adam  McPhee.
1,239 reviews168 followers
March 14, 2017
The pristine wilderness notion is a historically created idea about what ought to count as nature, and there is no reason we can’t change it. Just as the definition of citizen has changed to include more kinds of people as political ideas changed, so could nature expand to include more kinds of areas. Many ecologists today argue that we have to expand it, as our increasing understanding of history and atmospheric chemistry has left us with no areas at all that have not been altered by humans. And once we do change it, a heretofore unthinkable, exciting, and energizing thought occurs: we can make more nature. We can make things on Earth better, not just less bad.

Wanted to read this after Beth Shapiro explained Josh Donlan's pleistocene rewilding plan for New Mexico and cited this book. The plan is ambitious and brilliant, but the book is about a lot of other things besides that. Namely, that restoring wildlife to a pre-1492 baseline (in the americas), or even a pre-human 'pristine' baseline, is not what conservation projects should be working on. The idea should be more ambitious, to create ecosystems that survive and work for us, using the following conflicting goals as a guideline:

1. Protect the rights of other species.
2. Protect charismatic megafauna.
3. Slow the rate of extinctions.
4. Protect genetic diversity.
5. Define and defend biodiversity.
6. Maximize ecosystem services.
7. Protect the spiritual and aesthetic experience of nature.

She visits the reclaimed land nature park in the Netherlands, that Polish forest (I can never remember their names), conservation and forestry projects in British Columbia, a superfund site in Seattle, and ends on the need to diversify lawns, backyard gardens and industrial/commercial green areas.

Interesting concepts explored: pleistocene rewilding, deep ecology, assisted migration, secular vs anthropogenic climate change, reconciliation ecology, end of the 'balance of nature' paradigm, invasive species vs novel ecosystems.


On complexity:

Does the the refutation of the Clovis first model change this?

I live in the prairies and somehow I never considered this:

Donlan's pleistocene rewilding plan for New Mexico (I highly recommend reading the Nature paper):

Anthropogenic climate change dates back to the middle ages. Wild.

Designer ecosystems aka whatever works:
Profile Image for Thomas Cook.
14 reviews1 follower
March 8, 2015
For someone like me, who came of age celebrating the idea of wilderness, this book was a refreshing rethink of the relationship humanity has to nature. The book is not a scientific tome (though it is referenced) and its short length and journalistic writing makes for a quick read; but the return on the time spent is high. Emma Marris provides a quick review, and debunking, of the notions of unchanging and pristine nature that have dominated much of our thinking for at least the last 50 years. She goes on to talk about how we can incorporate more of nature into civilization, and probes the concept of ecological "restoration." "We can make more nature. We can make things on Earth better, not just less bad." Marris raises many important issues and new ideas, but certainly does not settle the controversy around these notions. I found some of her arguments not fully convincing, such as diminishing the threat of invasive species. However, I appreciated her intriguing stories, fresh perspectives, and optimism for a new nature-humanity relationship. An important book.
Profile Image for Melody.
2,623 reviews254 followers
November 29, 2013
Well done, indeed. It's one of those "everything you know is wrong" books, and it lays out fact after fact to help convince you. Perhaps the most striking revelation for me (and I'm admittedly slow to notice stuff) was that the "pristine wilderness" concept of conservation is a myth. And has been a myth since the ascent of man. So much so that any return of the wilderness to a pristine state is completely out of the question because there's no way to know what it looked like then. The case for making do with what we have, maximizing biodiversity, leveraging industrial sites for what they are and which species they can nurture, was brilliant.

Also TIL that what I think of as a "natural" stream configuration is actually an artifact of millponds.

Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Dianna.
1,859 reviews32 followers
November 16, 2013
A thought-provoking read on ecology and the stewardship of our earth. It never occurred to me before to question the philosophy that nature would be best if humans had never touched it—to try to get it back to some sort of pre-European state. But perhaps the goal of having most of the world as untouched wilderness is impossible, and I love the alternatives that Emma Maris points out in this book.
Profile Image for Roxana.
28 reviews
December 29, 2020
A very interesting book that made me feel a little bit better about the possibility of nature conservation. The book aims to open our horizons and to allow us to see new ways in which we can protect nature. There is still (some) hope!
2 reviews
March 11, 2021
Based on the incorrect idea that all or most ecologists/conservationists worship completely untouched nature. Scorns those who rightfully point out that invasive species are in fact bad. Some interesting ideas, but all in all, i didn’t like it. :/
50 reviews3 followers
March 7, 2022
This book presents an overview of the latest thinking about environmental restoration. And that alone was a wonderful gift. The context of the discussions – papers published in scholarly journals, delivered at conferences, debated afterwards in the bars – painted for me a whole world I’d never really imagined, populated by people who work hard every day at trying to heal the earth. Employed by national parks departments, departments of forestry, state governments. Trying while going about their work to hash out how best to go about it. Just knowing that they’re there, that they’re working today, boosts my spirits.

Marris is writing to point out, as she says on p. 2, that:
We are already running the whole Earth, whether we admit it or not. To run it consciously and effectively, we must admit our role and even embrace it. We must temper our romantic notion of untrammeled wilderness and find room next to it for the more nuanced notion of a global, half-wild rambunctious garden, tended by us.
Marris starts with the baseline problem. If you’re going to restore nature, what are you going to restore it to? It’s a standing joke that every environmentalist wants to keep every natural area exactly the way it was when they first saw it. And, to some extent, the baseline for restoration is “as we first saw it,” we being Europeans. But we've finally come to understand that what Europeans saw when they arrived wasn’t “virgin nature,” an “untouched wilderness.” It had been curated for thousands of years by the people who already lived there. So should the baseline be “before humans arrived on this hemisphere?” Or what? Once you realize that the very concept of “nature” in the goal of “restoring nature” is soft and arbitrary, the whole venture starts to become subject to debate. A section of the book is given over to documenting exactly how much ecological change goes on over the years. What you think of as the “natural” state of a given piece of land always has a date on it. It sure wasn’t that way if you look far enough back, as we all know from finding fossilized swamps in the desert.

Similarly, an impressive section of the book is devoted to the subject of “exotic species.” We’ve all heard the horror stories, how two starlings introduced into Central Park devastate native bird species all across a continent. Marris makes the exotic species debate much more nuanced. Pretty much everything you see is an exotic species in some sense. It arrived here some time. So how can you justify favoring one species over another? It’s certainly possible, but you have to be much more careful than just automatically declaring that the one that’s here now is noble and the one that isn’t is evil. In some cases, deliberately introducing an exotic species might even allow a successful restoration that wouldn’t be possible if you limit yourself to working with the canonical species.

I think my favorite section was on “assisted migration.” As the climate changes, species need to move. Some of them aren’t going to be able to. Picture a mountain species of tree. The mountains where it lives now are beginning to be too hot for them. How do they get to the next mountain range north? They can’t cross that extensive valley to get there. At least not by themselves. Should we help them?

Times are bad, and they’re going to get worse, and we need to be imaginative in trying to figure out how we’re going to preserve landscapes worth preserving. Maybe in some cases, the best approach might be not to try to recreate an existing ecosystem, but to usher into a being a novel ecosystem. One which has never been there before, but which might be as arguably natural as the no longer sustainable one you want to waste your whole budget trying to prop up.

Again, it’s impossible not to imagine the bars in the conference hotel, after you deliver that paper, as people who have worked in the field their whole career try their best not to outright shout at you after you propose such heresy.

Timothy Seasted, ecologist at the University of Colorado in Boulder, was involved in the 300-acre restoration of a gravel pit near the university. The area was seeded with all kinds of grass, and the dominant species turned out to be one “which doesn’t exist as a dominant anywhere around for hundreds of miles.” People like the landscape, and it supports wildlife. But it’s “an example of a system that did not exist pre-human intervention.” Isn’t that okay?

The traditional reply to that argument is that we’re too stupid and short-sighted to mess with nature. When we try to do something like that, it ends up being a textbook example of our folly.

Well, maybe it’s time to stop being so stupid. Steward Brand says, “We are as gods. We might as well get good at it.” (Marris doesn’t quote Brand, but I thought of him on every page.) Too late, too late by far, to make the planet appear as though humans have never been on it. Time to make the planet appear as though humans are taking good care of it.

I’m doing this book injustice by summarizing its arguments broadly, because the book is minute and careful. My summary is rhetorical and abstract, the book is thoughtful and full of factual detail. I would hesitate ever to say “Everyone should read this book.” But certainly anyone who has ever given a moment’s thought to what the world should look like in the future should read this book.
Profile Image for Kristina.
260 reviews28 followers
December 8, 2018
This book presented such an interesting and informative take on conservation! From differing perspectives among the ecological community regarding best practices for preserving nature, to new insights on “invasive” species, the author did a fantastic job of keeping the material accessible while still doing a great job of adequately presenting the true conundrum conservation creates. You will want to take your time with this book but you certainly won’t be disappointed.
Profile Image for Flora.
7 reviews1 follower
March 4, 2020
A really refreshing take on modern conservation efforts - this book has absolutely challenged my previous thoughts on what "wild" truly means. I'd recommend this book to anyone who cares an ounce about this planet and is ready to shift the doom & gloom pessimism surrounding our planet's fate into optimism.
16 reviews1 follower
February 17, 2018
I’ve been reading a lot of “post-modern ecology,” books lately, and this one is probably the most comprehensive and concise of them.
Profile Image for Ruth Walker.
78 reviews1 follower
December 17, 2022
I don't know, it did have some interesting parts but it just didn't hold my attention, I don't know that there is anything wrong with the book, maybe just not a good time for me to be reading it.
Profile Image for Carolyn.
67 reviews
June 18, 2018
A call to question and rethink the policies of environmentalism and ecology around parks and public spaces. I learned a lot about the history of tending such spaces and the key questions that are central to debates among ecologists and conservationists. I still thinking about the ways in which I might implement some of these ideas in my own garden. I recommend it.
Profile Image for Yanick Punter.
267 reviews35 followers
August 1, 2022
First, important to the discussion: I come from the Netherlands. It has it's own culture of conservation movement: no Yellowstone Model.

I'm very fond of Emma Marris. This is a nice well-written short book. Judging from similar books, like Fred Pearce's The New Wild (2015), Where Do Camels Belong by Ken Thompson (2014) and Chris Thomas' Inheritors of Earth (2017) also a paradigm shift. I do not understand some rather angry reviews, I do not find Marris' ideas that controversial. They strike me as balanced. If anything it is Pearce's The New Wild that's imbalanced.

The above books add to Rambunctious Garden. Pearce's description of Ascension Island's Green Mountain, Thompson's idea of invasive natives and Thomas's discussion of rapid evolution, speciation and hybridization. In all of them, there's a reconsideration of non-native or alien species. I hope we can mature that debate. I'm biased towards a more positive view and think a few species that are considered invasive do not deserve the brand. For example, Impatiens glandulifera.

I'm hoping we can look at alien species from different perspectives, not just a simple good and bad but good and bad features. Red oak (Quercus rubra) is blamed for not allowing much undergrowth because it casts a lot of shade. It also has a minimal amount of invertebrates (about 10 versus 400 on the native Quercus robur). Common beech also does not usually allow any undergrowth. That red oak doesn't have much invertebrates is to be expected: Europe only has white oaks, not red oaks (Lobatae) - at least this is what I assume to be the cause (i.e. chemical and morphological differences between the two). On the other hand, black woodpeckers like to use red oak as a nesting site because of its soft wood.

Other examples: a non-native species, black cherry, has more invertebrates as the native bird cherry. Non-native Douglas-fir had about 50 invertebrates 130 years ago compared to 87 now, meaning it costs some time for invertebrates to adapt. On the other hand, on rhododendron no native insect could be found in the Netherlands, similarly to eucalyptus in the UK, while natives like taxus and holly are equally invertebrate-poor. While Nothofagus, evolutionary an isolate from the Northern hemisphere has a reasonable 37 invertebrates on them.

Here in the Netherlands most of what is considered nature comes from cultural cultivation. Such as sand dunes (disputed), heath and meadow. We do have rewilding advocates such as Frans Vera, who advocate for natural processes. But no Yellowstone Model. I would like someone to deconstruct the models we have here. One person that does that and has fascinated me but who is also rather a crank is Rypke Zeilmaker. In one interview ex-manager Noord Staatsbosbeheer (which translates to North Forest-management), argues that the much valued nutrient-poor nature isn't the real nature but the exception: the Netherlands would be a nutrient-rich delta, and the nutrient-poor nature would be limited to raised bogs and high sandy soils. See: "Ex-directeur Noord Staatsbosbeheer: De Nederlandse natuur is veel te voedselarm geworden!"

(Review likely to be continued).
Profile Image for Laura.
356 reviews
June 16, 2019
This is a set of essays about how the field of conservation is being forced to shift from the goal of preserving pristine nature to preserving what we have left (after mankind has nearly ruined the globe). She strings together an interesting set of case studies, of places where scientists and practitioners are experimenting with different ways of preserving natural resources, e.g., rewilding species, assisted migration, "novel ecosystems," or "designer ecosystems." Throughout, you often get a set of grief and loss that people are fighting against, e.g., in a chapter about invasive species control, "what do we fear? The genuine extinction of a duck or the extinction of a familiar category [of duck]."

The book is less successful as an intellectual history of the discipline of conversation ecology, however. She often tells interesting story of people working in this milieu struggling to reconcile their idealized notions of a pristine wilderness with the stark reality of conditions they face. But she's less precise about specifying whether these people are scientists or practitioners, and what disciplinary field of science they are trained in. Even in the introductory chapters, where she traces out the history of the field, she makes some odd groupings (e.g., she lumps John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt in the same category of people who wanted to preserve nature, but I think of those two men as being very different--Muir wanting to preserve nature and Roosevelt wanting to conserve it so that humankind can exploit it at will). She also flirts with, but does not unpack, some interesting contrasts between American and European conservationism--I was disappointed that she didn't pull those contrasts out more, because I think it might have shed some light on how different epistemologies might produce different goals or a different spirit of pragmatism in conservation projects.
Profile Image for Ryan.
Author 1 book35 followers
December 12, 2013
This book is controversial, but deliberately so I think, in trying to attract attention from conservationists and more readers. The premise is that we should not only concentrate on preserving so called pristine wilderness areas, as firstly there is really no such thing in the Anthropocene where human activities have impacted every inch of the planet. Reading the negative reviews before reading the book, I started with some trepidation, but it ended up being not as bad as I thought. Yes, 'true' wildlife lovers like me who live for untrammeled protected nature reserves may baulk at Marris' disparaging of the futility of trying to protect the tiny pockets of such places remaining on Earth, while welcoming change in species composition and artificial rewilding, but as the book progresses, the author softens her stance and argue for the conserving of everything and anything in addition to such conventional nature reserves as she sees value even in the most man-made urban landscapes.

Like a good reporter, Marris is able to explain key concepts in ecology and the latest debates in an accessible manner, which alone already makes her slim book useful. The flip side is that she is no expert, and any conclusions drawn must be taken with a pinch of salt. What she does is open up the debate of what aspects of nature we should save, challenging our conventional ideas of what conservation is and in general making the reader think more critically on the issue.
Profile Image for Wendy Wagner.
Author 83 books133 followers
February 18, 2020
I think there's an attempt to make this book seem edgy or controversial, but the writer's main thesis -- that Romantic ideals of pristine nature sometimes obscure more functional relationships with nature and so we should approach conservation with maximum pragmatism -- is surprisingly common sensical and a bit bland. However, the book is well-researched and interesting, and touches on a lot of really fascinating people working in conservation projects. A good stepping off point, even if it won't fill you with passion.

Addendum, 2/18/2020: Apparently I even forgot I read this book so I read it again?
Profile Image for Jillian.
18 reviews13 followers
December 31, 2021
Such a condescending tone. The scientists she interviews whom she agrees with have "ascended" while apparently everyone else is still in the dark ages and isn't given any real depth or focus. There seem to be no hard questions or thought to the views she clearly supports. Just regurgitating what she agrees with. I really hated this book.
Profile Image for Alyson Hagy.
Author 13 books95 followers
August 9, 2015
A clear and thoughtful book that has complicated my thinking about landscape. Recommended to me by an ornithologist and a journalist (both great readers of fiction), I find myself thinking about Marris as I bike through town, hike through thoroughly-used subalpine forest, and "tend" my struggling lawn. What might I do to create a more "rambunctious" space for other species? Pure wilderness doesn't truly exist, so what can any of us actually *do* during the short span of our lifetimes to support biodiversity? Great questions. Powerful questions.
Profile Image for Helen.
159 reviews2 followers
April 22, 2021
This was an interesting read, although I really struggled to get through it. It's a bit rambling, and I'm still a bit unsure what the "point" Marris is trying to make. Ecological conservation is certainly not a cut and dry topic, but I think I would have benefited from a bit more synthesis with this one.
25 reviews1 follower
June 22, 2019
I struggled with some of Harris’s points because I have such a strongly, pro-native plants and animals perspective, but ultimately she grew my perspective about the wide range of tactics needed to maintain, celebrate, and preserve biodiversity.
Profile Image for Chris Hamby.
40 reviews7 followers
October 31, 2011
A great starting place for thinking about conservation in the 21st century. Written like an extended magazine article, with all the good and bad that entails.
Profile Image for Kendra.
77 reviews7 followers
May 22, 2015
I really loved this book. It opened my eyes to a new way of thinking about conservation and I'm really excited to explore these ideas further.
Profile Image for Fernleaf.
300 reviews
March 31, 2019
A very thought-provoking and optimistic book about the future of nature. The essential premise being that if our sole focus in 'saving nature' is looking at wilderness and trying to preserve nature as some static point in the past we are doomed to failure. Instead of holding up 'pristine' nature as an ideal we should broaden our focus to look at all nature, and preserve and bolster it wherever we find it.

This is by no means a novel concept now although it may have been more so when this book was published (2011.) I think the author makes a clear point and the book is laid out in an easy-to-follow fashion. She examines many of the biases within various fields of ecology and restoration and comes to the conclusions that a) trying to restore habitat to a pre-european-settlement baseline is ludicrous because of the amount of money/time/labor b) that kind of baseline is essentially an arbitrary one resting on the faulty assumption that native peoples didn't manage the lands they inhabited, and c) pointless because anthropogenic climate change layered on top of natural ecosystem changes make any kind of historic baseline ecosystem increasingly unrealistic and unlikely to be able to sustain itself.

Ecosystem restoration projects around the world are examined for their pros and cons and she explores the ideas of native vs exotic species (yes maybe some specific invasive species are worth worrying about but many others are probably not such a big deal,) rewilding (overall seems like a pretty good idea, can be managed in many ways and does not exclude human use of environments,) assisted migration (moving species to more suitable habitat ahead of climate change/disasters (highly controversial, probably a decent idea for some plants,) novel and designer ecosystems (best characterized as places where nature has 'come back' after humans drastically alter it, usually a mix of natives/exotics, brand new types of ecosystems, poorly studied,) and ends with the idea that conservation can and should happen everywhere, not just where nature is 'untouched.'

The big take-away? That there is no longer any place on earth that humans haven't touched and influenced in some way or another, if only because of the dramatic changes to earth's atmosphere. With the rising population and an uncertain climactic future attempting to 'hold nature back' to some assumed 'pristine state' is a waste of time. Instead we have to accept that WE are a part of nature too, and that if we want it to thrive we need to bring nature back wherever people are, in green roofs and backyard gardens, pollinator strips and hedgerows on farms, parks and wild spaces carefully connected with corridors that allow populations to move and mix. We need to repurpose unused industrial backlots and replant highway medians with native plants. We need to manage the world like a rambunctious garden, a little less neat and tidy where human live, so that we don't lose our wildness forever.
Profile Image for Alex Williams.
92 reviews1 follower
December 27, 2022

The Rambunctious Garden
by Emma Marris

This book is about how we understand nature, wildness and ecology. It’s about the stories we tell that make us believe that we are separate from nature and get in the way of conservation because there’s no nature that’s separate from us. There’s a chapter on invasive species and novel ecologies, a chapter on rewildling, some on famous ‘pristine’ forests and about the future of designing ecosystems. She has a very good understanding of ecology and a wonderful way of communicating that’s both exciting to read because it’s nicely written and because it’s positive; it celebrates an attitude of eco stewardship that embraces change and acceptance. She speaks from a background in biology and history but doesn’t hide her admiration of life. It feels a bit like reading E O Wilson.

The Rambunctious Garden is about ecological conservation and about how humans interact with and understand the wild. It reveals our eco biases and lays out all the different ways we measure the value of wildlife. It presents many complicated pieces of the puzzle that is our relationships with non humans and our desires for preserving biodiversity and functional ecosystems by questioning the definitions of 'species' and of 'function'. The book questions the validity of arbitrary sentimental historical ecological baselines that we call 'native' that we use to measure the value of current ecology against and many other concepts involved in eco policymaking and land management. The book includes examples of the mechanics of ecological systems and of conservation projects both historical and contemporary.

I love the content of this book but I also appreciate the writing. Every page is interesting. She doesn't give any answers - she lays out all the info and lets us decide what we value. She shows how each of our eco values undermines the next and encourages us to try everything, to see the value of conflicting motivations and processes and makes a vision of a world where millions of separate local conservation efforts and movements happen concurrently without the need of a single governing body or a single agreed upon set of values or system of measurement or goal.
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