A Course Correction: The Wild and the Human, On Repairing the Relationship Between Politics, Economics and the Environment

“We are the odd ones, with bright eyes, that see the wonder of a bountiful world.  We don’t look through rose colored glasses…we’ve only removed the veil that breaks and blinds….Now, to cut the strings that tie us to the lie. ”  Lance Wright, Jan. 2019

Echinops ritro in front of a Miscanthus gracillimus several years ago at Holladay Park. A series of perennial beds were created with help from a notable local designer. For a variety of reasons related to budget, staffing and vandalism, the beds declined.  Beauty, that necessary elixir, truly abounds, but we must be cognizant of the forms in which we accept it and be committed to what it requires to flourish.

Gardeners are my people…well, actually, so are botanists, horticulturists, entomologists, ecologists, the weekend outdoor adventurers who in regular moments of awe, pause to take in the daily wonder of the world…anyone, really, who works with or has become enamored with the living natural world (and I’m going to include geologists too, at least those not taking their livelihood from resource extraction).  I have a theory, that as our modern world becomes increasingly urbanized, and transformed by our use to that which supports urban living, more of us are becoming consciously aware of what we are losing, of the natural world that has been sacrificed, developed, along the way…and in ways, large and small, many, but still far too few of us, are choosing to make our lives reflect this understanding. We question the ‘stuff’ we have crowded our lives with, that ‘stuff’ we’ve spent our lives to procure while following the dream we’ve all been sold on.  Many of us garden on whatever we have available to us whether it’s a quarter acre, a Juliet balcony or a kitchen counter space.  We plant gardens for food or to support pollinators, to have something green and growing in our homes, we grow small succulents for their simple beauty, flowers for the vase or plants that provide cover and fruit for songbirds, there are many reasons…and we do this for the pleasure that it gives us, for the satisfaction that we are doing something to heal an increasingly ‘broken’ world.  Yet the world continues to spiral down into more ugly chaos, in spite of our increasing awareness…it is not enough.  I find myself drawn even more into the wonder and beauty of a single plant, the ‘miracle’ of life and the amazing complexity, the inter-relatedness of living communities…because, in spite of how our society views this planet and the countless organisms it routinely dismisses as secondary, and unnecessary or of little commercial value…life is in fact the center of meaning and value.

These beds are in South Waterfront Garden including Penstemon ‘Ruby’, Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’, Rosa glauca, Perovskia atriplicifolia and Lonicera ‘Baggesen’s Gold’ and like any perennial garden it requires regular monitoring, weeding and, for some plants, deadheading.  Over the years I cared for this garden its composition changed as I sought a balance between beauty and economy.

Elsewhere in the garden at South Waterfront, these beds originally included Anemone hupehensis ‘September Charm’ which is an aggressive spreader and mat former. It took several years to eventually rid them of this plant which quickly threatened to dominate the area choking out the more ‘docile’. These too have received regular ‘editing’ to keep the plants in balance. There was an attempt in the design to create a matrix planting, but the plants chosen did not form a natural community and were a volatile mix.  We have to work to create beds that live in relationship with. The giant inflorescences of Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ hover in the foreground.

For some, this ‘brokenness’ we’re all feeling, is acute and personal, and our gardening is an attempt to heal our own feeling of rootlessness and quite literally grow a sense of connection to place, of belonging and ‘wholeness’.  For generations humans lived local, place based lives and, while many willingly fled that life and its periodic hardships and privations for the protections, opportunities and stimulation of cities, we lost more than the limits and restrictions a more rural life had imposed on our lives when we left.  For indigenous people around the world, this centering upon and gratitude for the living earth, has been the value upon which all others are built.  Time after time I hear or read of people talking of the peace and sense of connection that their gardens, and the work they do in them, brings them, how it helps balance out the chaos around us.  There is nothing mysterious or inexplicable about this…we are, after all, living organisms ourselves with a history, that until relatively recently, evolved in place, in communities, supportive and competitive, rich and diverse with a great many species. I do not mean to trivialize the hardships a local/rural life often included, but much of that was due to the burdens placed upon a population by their ‘lords’ and the owners they labored under. We were local and lived in place and in association with.  In earlier times our survival depended upon our connection to the natural world around us…it was not a choice.  Now it would seem that technology and economics have ‘freed’ us of this…given us this choice, and for a great many, whose lives were once focused on subsistence, the promises of the modern world, of comfort, convenience and security, seems to be a ‘no-brainer’…and embrace it willingly.  Others have had little choice but to leave their ancestral homes in favor of modern freedom and rootlessness. But now, we are in a position to better understand what those ‘promises’, made to us by marketers, promoters and planners, have cost us.  Whether honest or disingenuous, they missed the mark…they weren’t wrong necessarily, but they were incomplete and that is what many of us are looking for in our lives now. 

Garden compositions can be very simple. Simple often means a lack of complexity and brings with it instability and so puts demands on us to maintain our creations, but simple is also easier to understand for the beginner, requiring that they understand and balance fewer ‘moving parts’.  Designers often create a series of simple individual vignettes for the visitor. This Clianthus puniceus is in my garden, sections of which I periodically rework.  Obviously it will not be possible for such a  garden to achieve a stable balance here, to be sustainable.

Not everyone is at the same point in this transition.  Many are still committed to the world of miracles and convenience we’ve been promised and think if they only work a little harder, persist a little longer, that they or their children will attain this and the magic of technology will overcome all problems.  These people still accept the sacrifice of the world around them and too often, the ‘necessary’ sacrifice of others…that it is a simple conversion process…that there will always be enough of nature left and what of it that is lost, isn’t really necessary, that our ingenuity will always step up with a solution…technology, marketers, hucksters and politicians will come through for us, that there is substance to their talk, to their promises.  That if we are ‘strong’ enough and persistent enough, we can do this, and claim our reward.  But who is it making these promises to us?  What is their ‘track record’?  Who is really benefiting here?  What are their beliefs?  What are their promises based on? 

Those who sell this to us, believe in the simplicity of nature as a mechanical system of direct inputs and outputs, that if something is not directly useful to the world as they see it, that it is extraneous, without purpose or value.   Some have the faith in their God that as good and righteous people, they will not be abandoned and they mesh the gears of the economy with their beliefs.  Their indifference to nature, is more a sign of their commitment to the economy than it is an animosity for nature, though some view the ‘wild’ in it similarly to how they view the ‘wild’ in themselves, closer to sin than a desirable ideal and so, the loss of the wild is not a substantive one. They tend to believe that we are talented enough to step in as needed, that we can control the process of nature, that no real lasting harm will come to us as a result of what we do.  We are ‘taught’ to believe this.  We are ‘captains of our fate’.  A world that is beyond our ability to control, works against this desire…so they dismiss it.   As we each make our lives we decide which path we’ll follow.  Many of us have found the necessity of including nature in our lives, melding it with those elements of modern life we find indispensable, increasingly unwilling to sacrifice the one for the other.   

Enjoying the late afternoon sun on a Fall day outside Enterprise, OR, the nearby Wallowa Mountains in the background.  Opportunities such as this are not built, they are utilized where we find them.  They are the result of our proximity to the ‘wild’.

Along upper Wychus Creek in the Deschutes National Forest south of Sisters, OR.  Uncompromised natural areas require little from us other than our respect and commitment, our gratitude, to limit our intrusion, watch over and protect them…to allow them to abide.

From a walk in Spyglass Park north of Pismo Beach, CA. Sometimes landscapes, like this one, are simply the result of fantastic geology. The Pacific Coast often displays its synclines and layers in colorful twisted uplifts of deformed rock.  Nature’s aesthetic is endless, but always respectful, harmonious and responsive to the forces and cycles of place.

Ragged Point on the California coast below the Hearst Castle.  There is something about wild places that is both rejuvenating and beautiful.  Here the sea wields its power, wearing away at the continent just as surely as other forces uplift it in a continuous process of land making.  Such places can be viewed as a leading edge of creation, of erosion and accretion, geology and biology working together in powerful strokes wielding water, the dynamic expansion of crustal plates and weather.

A grove of beautiful native Oaks in Shiloh Regional Park, 850 acres, near Windsor, CA, in the Sonoma Valley.  You cannot plant a landscape that looks like this.  With luck, good practice and a hundred years or more, perhaps we could approximate this.  Our urban landscapes are so unstable, and subject to revision, that one hundred years of undisturbed growth is difficult to imagine.  The Tubbs fire in October of ’17 burned much of this immediate area.  Our western native Oaks tend to be fire resistant and how many of these trees were killed I don’t know.  Fire itself may be a natural force, but we are changing the conditions within which it works.  The losses of such places to flame have changed them with a reach that will continue for generations to come.  There are lessons all around us to learn from.  This place’s recovery?…I would like to revisit the Park over the next few years to see what happens.

The west slope of Brundage Mountain, outside of McCall, Idaho, with the historic lookout cabin still there.  This place is not immune to urban pressures as thousands of urban residents vacation here looking for a respite from our shared affliction.  The Seven Devils Mountains, which crowd Idaho’s border with Oregon, are just beyond the cloud capped ridge in the near distance.  As a ski area this is not pristine, the runs are maintained in an open state.  The grooming and skiing itself compacts the snow and alters conditions for the plants beneath it.

Payette Lake looking southeast toward the southern end of the Salmon River Mountains. The little town of McCall, at 5,000′ elevation, with its estimated 3,351 residents in 2017, sits on the south end of the lake.  This is a hub for vacationers.  The lake serves as its potable water source.  The town itself is fairly compact with the typical spread of suburban growth.  Expensive homes line much of the lake’s edge.  Wide vistas present themselves in every direction.  Large cities cannot afford to grow as they have without compromising the lives and health of residents.  It is a matter of scale.  With growth, consideration must be made for the negative impact development has on nature and the landscape.  It’s as true for New York City as it is for McCall.  The impacts of towns and cities reach around the globe as they gather what they need, the food, resources, technology and energy to support themselves.  Ignoring this relationship is what got us into our predicament.

Many have not consciously made this connection.  Even so, a good number of these people regularly venture out of their city to accessible wild places, to replenish their ‘batteries’, to partake in something bigger, grander, more powerful than themselves, to feel ‘alive’ and are effected by the ineffable quality of these landscapes.  True many go out into nature to ‘blast’ around on their ATV’s as if racing to find something in their lives.  Whatever we choose to do there these landscapes ‘reassure’ us, draw us in and fulfill a need that goes wanting in our cities as we’ve built them.  For many it goes no farther than this.  Our daily lives wear us down and we leave periodically to be recharged.  For many others, including most gardeners, we have discovered the value of living in relationship with the living world, that doing so is not onerous, but rejuvenating, that our efforts are rewarded in ways we may not have originally anticipated.  The satisfaction and beauty that we enjoy from this is empowering.  Time after time as we travel around our city we are met with other examples of gardeners living and working in relationship with their place while the many neglected and abused landscapes around us ‘speak’ to us of their ‘wrongness’. 

These landscapes are a product of our economy that, hopefully, we are out growing, an economy that brought us so many technological advances, that gives the natural world that ‘birthed’ and still supports it, little to no priority, assigning value by a rough calculus of utility, of ‘cost/benefit’ and consistently sees the equation as lacking, asking only the simple question of, ‘What does it do for me?’  What is a beautiful, vibrant, landscape worth in a world that ascribes little value to something for its existence?  By this thinking these are the things, the places, the lives, that in a perverse way, we mark as having failed ‘us’!  Their penalty for this is neglect and the language that we use to identify them tends to be negative, diminishing, pejoratives of place, ‘undeveloped’, ‘vacant’, ‘wasteland’.  The way out of this for most places has been when through our accumulative action as a society and local economy, these same places gain the quality of ‘development potential’, at which point we do that to produce a recognized benefit and thereby profit from said development and thus drive the economy onward.  If that isn’t sad enough, once developed, in our attempt to continually profit over time, our model is to defer at least some portion of maintenance to thereby, once again, take more profit.  In the case of living landscapes this goal and our undervaluing and misunderstanding of landscapes as living systems, generally accelerates this process of decline.  We remain ‘committed’ to a place’s maintenance only as long as it is ‘new’ or that there is ‘pressure’ to do so.  We, as a society, again, fail to recognize our relationship with the living world.  How can I make these claims? Relatively easily, because the evidence is everywhere if we care to look.

The easiest way is to look at how much we spend maintaining something, at our budgets, effort and time spent on it.  I worked almost 30 years as a landscape-gardener/horticulturist in Portland Parks and more years in the private sector doing construction and maintenance.  I experienced first hand how this works.  If we don’t commit enough of our resources to such care, it matters little what we may say or claim.  The problem continues unabated.  If we have programs and procedures in place and don’t commit the necessary resources to effectively implement them, then it is all only a political maneuver.  If we only look at the gross amount of our expenditures without evaluating them in appropriate context, it means nothing.  If our programs and practices are themselves ineffective, or even destructive over the long term, it is even worse because our meager resources are adding to the problem while we delude ourselves and defend our efforts!  It casts a dismal pall across doing anything.  A sense of futility taints any such work and discourages managers and politicians from doing/wasting more, if they are aware at all of the ‘waste’ of any such work.

This is an all too common landscape in Portland, owned by the Portland Department of Transportation. It abuts the north side of the east ramp climbing up to the Holgate Overpass which spans the railroad switching yard. Never planted, left to weeds, occasionally sprayed or ‘mowed’, generally after weed seeds have ripened and been released. The maintenance contributes to the problem here. The soil is unstable and steeply sloping, undevelopable, waste space.

The near acre of ornamental grasses along the Willamette in South Waterfront Park are cut and removed late each winter before spring growth initiates. Because this was planted with ornamental bunch grasses this site is very problematic for weed control with bare soil between each plant. In the distance you see the strip that was being prepped for replanting in ’03, its mature mat of English Ivy removed. This site was planted with another acre of large sweeps of individual plants and again, continues to be very maintenance intensive.  With tightening budgets and staff reductions these areas have become more seriously degraded by invading weeds.

The reservoir behind Brownlee Dam on the Snake River. Engineered solutions like this one treat the landscape like another engineered component, drowning the riparian landscape. The upland band that lines it, stands out starkly.  The bare rock exposed, its layer of thin soil gone and bereft of plants.  Our actions in the landscape always have consequences…we must weigh their costs carefully each time.

Another way of looking at this problem is by attempting to understand how we perpetuate our societal view of nature, the landscape and our relationship with it.  There have been multiple studies conducted on, and books written about, the estrangement of today’s young people and their consequent dissociation from the living green world.  As urban dwellers their entire lives, living in degraded landscapes, they often have little or no positive connection with the natural world.  This is their ‘normal’ from which they understand the world.  Many literally have no clue where their food comes from and can neither distinguish a native plant species from a weed or a serious invasive threat.  I often think that plants are nearly invisible to many of them…I’m not going to belabor this here.  I’ve already touched on how our economy, and our thorough indoctrination in it, effects and shapes our view of the landscape and living world, but I do want to call out specifically the role of formal education in the problem as well or, rather, its absence. 

Curriculums, in public schools generally give little priority to this topic.  It is largely absent from it and is ignored.  Many students receive next to no exposure to these ideas.  A relatively few students may choose biology as an elective, but it is generally restricted to an academic approach, still it may be enough to open the eyes of a few.  Ecology as a science is so politicized in our culture that its inclusion at school is largely omitted, even shunned.  Outdoor School, a good idea, has always been a very limited program and its funding is under regular attack as it is still widely considered to be an extravagance.  Schoolyards and their landscapes demonstrate this lack of priority and dissociation in their own design and maintenance, by the student’s own lack of relationship with them.  A handful of parent/teacher driven projects may exist in some schools, but overall school districts don’t place a priority on them…they don’t fund them. Portland Public Schools cut their Green Thumb program several years ago that offered a landscape base alternative curriculum to students having a difficult time with a more ‘modern’ academic curriculum.  By excluding this from our schools we reinforce the societal view that it is unnecessary or unimportant, and our children, the students, learn from this deficiency.   Additionally those who don’t fit in to the academic approach, are left out

Education in general is suspect by much of our population and, consequently is underfunded.  Teaching has become a questionable professional pursuit.  Again I point to the money and our priorities.  More and more we are falling back to rote learning and teaching what students ‘need’ to be good employees, following rules, obedience and compliance.  While many argue for an enlargement of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), and others, generally, unsuccessfully, for the Arts, there are relatively few advocating for the study of life sciences, beyond the practice of medicine, into horticulture, ecology and developing a student’s understanding of and their relationship with the living world.  Sports and physical activity are underfunded as well, but are popular enough that booster groups rally to support the more dominant ones, again this is reflective of our societal priorities.  I do not begrudge sports programs as I’m one of those students who may have survived largely because of them, but all of the others are needed as well…maybe none so desperately as those that support the vital link we share with the living world.  Such ideas run counter to the dominant paradigm.  Almost everything in a young person’s life points them elsewhere.  We flounder with little sense of urgency to make a change, in a world of divisive politics and a social media promoting a culture of celebrity, impeding any serious, attempts to conduct a discussion of any substance.

Those of us who have found ourselves as active participants in the green world often did so because of an individual life shaping experience, or if we were fortunate, because of a mentor who was there for us.  It has never been an easy choice to make, pursuing a career in the horticultural world generally means a choice that won’t be very financially rewarding.  Society’s low priority is reflected in the compensation that such work pays. Those who choose it are often thought of as unambitious and not very smart.  The work is viewed as demeaning, simple stoop labor, unimportant.  Those of us who stay with it often do so out of passion. It can be incredibly frustrating to constantly be faced with inadequate resources to do the job as it should be, while others continue on in their work causing ever more disturbance confounding our work!  The willful ignorance is astounding!

The work and the need are anything but simple. As a people, as a species, we cannot depend on the few of us who happen to find our niche here and work to make a positive difference while the majority stumble blindly, eagerly, and headlong down the same consumptive path that has brought us to this perilous state.  What do they say about people who continue with the same behaviors while expecting a different outcome?  Our situation locally and globally is growing increasingly desperate.  The damage is accelerating.  Politics as usual is not working.  We are compromising ourselves into oblivion, and those of us with our hands in the soil, who are awake and aware, know this.  We can’t just keep gardening in the old way if we expect the world to be here tomorrow, healthy and supportive, for our children and grandchildren.  The economy can adapt.  The environment is being pushed beyond its very real limits.  Like so many other things there needs to be an open and frank discussion of where we are likely headed and where we want to be, a re-examination of how we live in this world and a commitment to changing it.

Our own gardens, as beautiful as they may be, serve many of us as lifebuoys and we cling to them for our lives, but they are not enough.  We live in a society that occupies and propels a declining natural world, its systems and cycles. its ability to replenish itself has been under continuous attack.  We find ourselves as gardeners increasingly in a defensive posture, protecting them from invasion, the indifference of others and today, even the potentially lethal changes of an increasingly chaotic climate.  We cannot compensate for all the damages done alone.  Our gardens allow us to keep our heads above ‘water’.  They provide us with a respite from the broken, still breaking, world around us, but our gardens cannot survive over the long term in a world that is indifferent to life.  Nature and its normal cycling, its flows of resources and energy, which are an integral part of it, have added countless billions of dollars worth of biological value back into the world in a series of endless feedback loops.  This is what is breaking down with the accelerating rate of habitat loss, the ultimate repositories of wealth, the loss of the species that work together to not just support them.  Nature does not extract a profit…it creates and shares its wealth freely…wasting nothing, while we in our rush, prioritize profit and pass on the cost of our waste to others. The cycles that nourish life have provided these benefits for ‘free’.  Nature takes what is needs, but it always shares its bounty with its neighbors.  It is said that one of the traits of human beings is our ability to ‘reflect’ on what we have done and ‘correct’ our errors.  Native people would say that that which distinguishes us is our ability to express our gratitude, but it would seem that many, or most of us, have forgotten this.  We are a necessary and integral part of the landscapes and life that we have disrupted. If they and the life within them are to heal, we must embrace our role in the process, take responsibility and act.  Once broken, these living systems must be ‘grown back’.  Just as we have been capable destroyers we are uniquely positioned and gifted to ‘reboot’ the natural communities and cycles that can heal the earth…but we have to be committed to it.  We cannot do it piecemeal, especially while the economy keeps endlessly consuming life and landscape without giving back.

Our struggle is that conflict between our individual, and collective efforts to survive, to carve out a life for ourselves and families, and the landscapes, forces and cycles that give this planet life.  The greater the dissonance between them, the more we ourselves and the wider community of life, suffer.  The answer does not lie in pulling further away from Earth, hunkering down, fortifying, gathering to ourselves ever more resources, but in insuring the health and vitality of the life around us.  A healthy world is a secure one, an abundant place that can share its resources asking only that we reciprocate, that we live our lives in balance.  A healthy world cannot support our continuously growing population and rates of consumption with the associated spread of urbanization.  There are limits to such growth…and we have exceeded them.  It is childish to believe that they don’t exist.  Fear, doubt and greed are destroyers.

We must not be overly critical of ourselves and give into futility.  We need to understand that we are all in this together.  We must not only stop the increasing damage, we must begin to give back to, heal and replenish.  It will require us all.  Many of the necessary changes can progress incrementally.  Others will occur in a ‘cascade’ once some critical threshold has been crossed.  We are members of a society and the ‘best’ choice may not be immediately available to us.  In these cases we must still do what we can and work to increase our options, to demand such a world from our political and business leaders.  Paralysis, the choice of doing nothing, of denying responsibility, will insure failure.  We must not approach this with grimness, but with joy and hope in our hearts, for that too is an essential part of life.  Life is so much more than simple competition and death.

In nature organisms each play complex roles.  Each lives in balance, giving and taking, skewed slightly toward the positive, contributing, building in additional complexity and diversity.  We, with our consumptive mentality are using our technology to extract, consume ever more, compromising that which we don’t value, taking profit with little thought of giving back.  Where is our contribution to balance out our impact?  If a species places too heavy of a demand on a landscape, on the resources and species which sustain it, its numbers will eventually crash.  So far we have been able to continue our level of consumption and expansion because of our massive expenditures of energy, tapping more deeply into the capital, the stored resources of the Earth.  The natural systems and cycles that supported the world for billions of years are becoming  compromised through our actions more and more every day.  We cannot continue to assume that because this supportive world has ‘always’ been here for us, that it will continue indefinitely, despite our compromising it.  At some point we will no longer possess the resources to keep all of these damaged landscapes, species and populations healthy and functioning…we/the Earth will lose too much.  We need to look wider that our little scattered oasis and refuges that we have created and protect to what is left for others…all others, the people and countless species upon which we depend.  As important as our gardens are to each of us we must increase our efforts to heal the wider natural world and re-establish the connections between it and society.  We needn’t have a complete and detailed plan, but we do need to act.  Each ‘piece’ is dependent upon the other and cannot survive for long on its own. The world depends on this and it is within our ability to do, if we can summon up the will!

Looking west along the Columbia River from atop Chatfield Hill, above Memaloose State Park.

It is not science that will ‘save the world’, we already know enough to begin.  Enough to stop the most damaging of our practices and understand the very real links between us all, upon which we all ultimately depend.  No, we knew enough science decades ago to begin our own rescue.  What we have needed is art, an understanding of beauty, the ability to see beyond utility and ourselves…and love….Not the elusive one perfect love that marketers have drummed into us that leaves us hungry, empty and wanting, insufficient, in a world of plenty, but the inclusive, healing, unconditional love, that recognizes the value of each and every organism and its ‘place’.  The love that will enable us to view life as the gift that it is and would put us on the path of gratitude and wonder.  There is sacrifice and pain in the world and it is wrong of us to think it can be otherwise.  Each organism, each life, will pass and its body will be a gift to others, a gift that we should acknowledge with gratitude and respect.  Death should be understood as a natural and necessary part of the cycle.  Each person, each organism serves a valued role in their living and dying…one that should not be wasted, whose use should be considered and honored.  Life is not an ‘assembly line’ where each individual serves a limited purpose, we are not merely another’s food, we are each active contributors and it benefits us all to understand and celebrate this.  We have stripped the world of much of its meaning and with this, its value, laying waste to it.  What we need to rediscover its meaning which will allow us to recognize its value.  Meaning and value are inherent to all things, all life.  They have always been there, one cannot be separated from the other.  We have trained ourselves to ignore them and, as a result, lost the ability to see it in ourselves.

I wrote the first draft of this before I read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book, Braiding Sweetgrass…a book that should be read by anyone interested in the future of this beautiful and incredible place on which we live.

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