Redefining Nature in a Post-Wilderness World


Review: Emma Marris. Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. New York: Bloomsbury, 2011.

“When conservationists focus on ‘pristine wilderness’ only, they give people the impression that that’s all that nature is. And so urban, suburban, and rural citizens believe that there is no nature where they live; that it is far away and not their concern. They can lose the ability to have spiritual and aesthetic experiences in more humble natural settings” (150).

This quote really captures the point that Marris is trying to make here. In a way, her book pairs nicely with Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature (1989). Both argue that human induced climate change in what has been referred to as the Anthropocene Era has made the concept of ‘wilderness’ (land untouched by humans) untenable. Traces of the human are present in every landscape. When we try to remove them, we are simply engaging in a different form of human interaction, historical preservation applied to the land. Once we become aware of this fact, she argues, we must then consider what a responsible environmentalism can and should look like in this new era of human history.

Not surprisingly, Marris’s work also pairs well with William Cronon’s history in Nature’s Metropolis (1991), which shows the complex economic relationship between country and city, and also in Changes in the Land (1983), which demonstrates that the natives had already shaped the landscape to meet their needs before settlers from Europe arrived. It was simply shaped in a  way that was illegible to these eighteenth-century migrants from western Europe. Consequently, they saw the landscape as ‘untamed.’ 

Most of the book is designed to convince readers that we live in a post-wild world using research from science and the humanities as evidence. Near the end, she proposes a solution, in a model kind of like Michael Pollan’s in The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), to create what she calls a ‘rambunctious garden.’ This is the kind of nature that we already see in and near our homes. Readers are simply encouraged to see that landscape as ‘nature’ and tend it more consciously for the benefit of the global community.

Marris’s book is highly readable and very useful to anyone who cares about the environment but feels stumped about where to start combatting climate change. As someone who came of age during the era of Earth First and the tongue and cheek “Save the Planet. Kill Yourself” bumpersticker, I find Marris’s approach to environmentalism surprisingly sane. This is a type of climate warrior ethos I can get behind. If you’re a teacher and are looking to teach popular science in your classroom, this is good place to start.

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