about this blog

I started this blog in 2008. It started mainly as a way of tracking the evolution of my dry garden, and that led to an interest in photography and in the creatures that live in the garden. It's still about the garden and wildlife, but now my passion is thinking about how we humans can learn to co-exist with wild animals and plants, especially in urban areas.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

the call of the wild

Two writers write about wild nature. Griffiths sees wildness in special places lightly touched by people, places where shamans live, where people still exist by hunting and gathering. Everywhere else is wasteland. Marris see nature nearly everywhere -  in people's gardens, in parks, farms, strips of land next to fast food places, roundabouts. Even where there's concrete, after a while green shoots creep through the cracks. It's not pristine, but it's nature, and can be thought about, and changed by us, for the better. Marris is looking at the now. Griffiths is yearning for a lost past.

Emma Marris' Rambunctious Garden: Shaping Nature in a Post - Wild World challenges core taken for granted facts about ecology. It's like changing the lens of your glasses, or blinking and suddenly seeing a picture differently.  Not all exotic plants and animals become terrible invasive species. Many thrive and adapt and help to increase biodiversity. If the choice is to let a species become extinct because of climate change, or moving it to a cooler place, maybe it's worth intervening.

Rather than look at the actual species that are becoming extinct, and trying to restore them to an environment that is changing, this ecological model looks at processes. In one area there were grazers, leaf nibblers and wallowers. Then they migrated or became extinct. For practical reasons it may not be possible to reinstate the particular species that lived there, but it may be possible to send proxy species that perform the same functions  - an idea called radical rewilding.

There is a paradox here. What appear to be wild places tend to be carefully managed in order to stay 'wild', whereas truly wild places, teeming with exotic species, may not be valued or even noticed. These places can be managed too, an idea called novel ecosystems.

In contrast to these practical future-oriented ideas is the seductive, powerful poetic writing of Jay Griffiths in Wild: An Elemental Journey. Griffiths travelled the world to experience the joy, fear, transcendence and beauty of wildness and wilderness. The lives of hunters and gatherers are painted as a perfect balance of nature until consumer culture catches up with them and throws them off their lands.

Griffiths feels contempt for the contemporary world:  A rage against the out of town shopping centre, placed on the last little chinks of commons, the wild places on the edge of towns ... the commons up for sale - another enclosure... making the Amazon arid and the Arctic an overheated suburbia. It's not that I don't agree with this. It's just that it's presented in black and white. This all or nothing approach is fanatical and doesn't provide us with hope or strategies to deal with hard environmental issues.

Both Maris and Griffiths write about corridors. For Maris corridors are an important way of linking wild places so species can move around. She gives an example of such a corridor next to a freeway in Holland ... humans and wildlife, all busily going somewhere ...   For Griffiths corridors are soul destroying: ... corridors of convention ... supermarket aisles ... pavements of nonevents, or those that took no risks... pavements that trod past semi-detached houses, semi-the-same, semi-skimmed milk semi-tasted and always lukewarm.

Maris is practical, pragmatic, tolerant, though no less passionate than Griffiths. There is no one best goal... Here, land for soulful contemplation, plus water filtration. There, land for the tiger and for ten endangered plant species. Over there, a mixed bag of refuge for island species that have winked out on their home atolls. And there, farms with wide boundaries left to go wild and highway medians covered in flowers.

It's so hard to avoid either/or or black/white thinking. I fell into this trap the other day with 3 year old J. We were in the garden, listening. I prefer the sound of birds to the sound of the rubbish truck I said.  And what was his predictable reply?  I prefer the sound of the rubbish truck! 

Check out  Montreal: Concrete Gardens for a great example of combining nature, creativity and concrete. It can be done. 


  1. I just ordered Rambunctious Garden from our library. There were two copies and both were available! Thanks for the book reviews, I look forward to learning something new and perhaps changing my viewpoint on invasive species.

  2. It looks like I have another two books to read this year. thanks they both sound like page turners.

  3. Two books that give us a lot to think about. I agree that what looks like " wild nature" is usually managed and quite often it is better for it, if a greater diversity of wildlife is what is wanted.Nature left to itself sometimes becomes so wild that it can only sustain 1 or 2 species, who can say which is better or right?I know that if I didn't manage my woodland strip with a gentle hand it would be choked with brambles and nettles and home to only a very few species of mammals and birds.

  4. Out of the mouths of babes. Those books look good.

  5. Between the two I find passionate justification for my gardening for wildlife attitude. Once was a wake up call for me that the English landscape we admire, is not wild, but a particular way of intensive farming. Keeping the hedgerows and the 'wild' woods, of course!

  6. Hi Elaine, interesting that both copies were available, hope you like it as much as I did.

    Hi Cathy, for garden- istas like us, yes they're page turners.

    dear Pauline, interesting, but I imagine there is a big difference between nature left to itself and monoculture?

    Thanks Hermes.

    Hi Diana, yes - paradoxes abound around the nature of wildness.

    cheers, catmint

  7. Thanks for sharing. Your information about books is always welcome.

  8. I'd prefer the sounds of nature over the sounds of trucks. I live at the dead end of a street and love that there isn't any traffic anywhere around our place. And the wildlife appreciates it as well. Look like some fun reading.

  9. Thanks for the visit and comment Ian.

    Dear Bom, yes he's very cute, I'm madly in love ...

    Hi Chris, hopefully he'll change his mind by the time he's grown up. Right now he gets really excited when the garbage truck comes, but he is into flowers and butterflies as well.

    cheers, catmint

  10. J prefers the sound of the rubbish truck, that did make me laugh and as you say so predictable. Thanks for the introduction to the books, but how am I going to get my head out of the escapism of the murder, mystery and suspense that I have become addicted to.

  11. I'll have to add these books to my reading list. One of my favorite things to think about when I'm driving or riding in the passenger seat is how to add green to cement. I imagine a green oasis everywhere no matter how small or managed. Think about how quickly nature can over run a large deserted parking lot! Or imagine a planned oasis in the middle of that parking lot - what a difference it would make in the sea of concrete. The concepts these books seem to probe appeal to me.

  12. Right, I'm off to see if I can order Rambunctious Garden in at our local library too! I'm intrigued with the idea of accepting approximate species in a changed landscape and I'd be interested to read her ideas of differentiating between a helpfully adaptive and an invasive species. Sounds like great food for thought!

  13. Hi Alastair, enjoy the escapism! Just read the reviews and pretend you've read the books.(sneaky - did I say that?)

    Hi Kathy, it's exciting to think how to combine green and concrete - without using green paint !

    Hi Heidi, I look forward to hearing what you think about the rambunctious garden - it's ground breaking (pun intended!)

    cheers, catmint / sue (I'm starting to come out from undercover)

  14. Marris' book I just might read. Living in suburbia I thought wild life would not be a problem (some of my family live in the hill country of Texas and have trouble with deer eating everything - even daffodils). But here in my little bit of heaven I have snakes, lizards, mice, squirrels, owls and lots of other birds, bobcats (eating, I'm afraid, the neighbors' cat), opossum -digging everywhere, armadillos - also digging, and other critters. They aren't a problem - just a part of our life. They've adapted, I'm adapting (well, I'm not racing out trying to shoot them). My point is we're here, they're here - it's sort of a live and let live kind of thing. I don't use chemicals in the garden for their sake and ours. But I do weed (on occasion) and I grow the plants I want to see in my garden.

  15. Hi, CJ, sounds like you are carrying out Maris' philosophy already. cheers, catmint


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