Post-wild Gardening


Winter in the Blue Mountains this year has been remarkably mild; a little chilly in the mornings followed by clear sunny skies. Perfect gardening weather I think as I busy myself uprooting seedling blackberries and other undesirables. And yet at the back of my mind there’s a lurking anxiety which, combined with my memory of extreme high temperatures in the summer, inevitably raises the spectre of climate change and all that it implies for gardens, biodiversity, our very existence.

As soon as a plant inexplicably dies or another fails to flourish, in fact whenever anything out of the ordinary occurs, an imaginary headline screaming “climate change” flashes into my mind. Needless to say I’ve read endless articles in an effort to keep pace with climate change data. Many refer to the “long emergency;” to what is known as a “wicked problem.” Gardening problems are of course merely the tip of this melting iceberg in which interrelated effects including global phenomena such as biodiversity and geophysical impacts, population increase and migration, urbanization, disparities in wealth appear to have no panacea within the capitalist machine.

These wide-ranging issues may seem to reduce my elephant in the garden to insignificance but there’s no escaping the fact that these days it is impossible to garden without experiencing intense anxiety and uncertainty about the future. I am hardly the only gardener to feel at a loss, powerless to effect any meaningful change.

So I am rather surprised when, in the midst of brooding about the future and the fears this engenders, the notion of generosity comes to my mind. This strikes me as incongruous until I remind myself that generosity is at the heart of all life. It is, perhaps, stating the obvious to say that everything animate on our planet comes into being needing to receive from another or others in order to survive. Receiving nutrients be it soil and moisture for a plant or milk from a mother is inseparable from the act of giving. This integrated movement of giving/receiving is, we might say, a primary impulse of life and we lose something of our humanity when our generosity is curtailed.

On a broader scale I ask myself what will happen to us when more and more people become displaced by climate change. Already our government refuses to allow many in genuine need to be welcomed into our land so that we are denied our primary impulse to give sustenance to others in distress. And what of those who are displaced? Those who have suffered unimaginable losses and are then confronted with rejection; who are deprived of a promising new life and whose opportunity to be grateful can only wither within them. How do any of us find solace in such a world?

Inevitably I find myself gravitating back to plants in an effort to escape from the seemingly inescapable. Plants and gardening are my panacea that I like to imagine exist outside the capitalist machine. Gardening is where I attempt to find a modicum of agency. Plants are emissaries of life and delight. They work with, rather than against, the powerful flux of life – regardless of their origin, of whether they are native or exotic, cultivated or weeds. Nevertheless, it is true I have been known to wage war on weeds, to uproot in a frenzy those exotic escapees listed as invasive, as dangerous to the long-term ‘purity’ of the native bush.


It is only recently that I have begun to question the need for that solid dividing wall between undesirable exotic plants and weeds and carefully chosen garden species. And I have scrupulously avoided comparing this practice to that of refusing entry to foreigners who arrive uninvited on our shores.

Of course, I’m aware that drawing comparisons between human migrants and alien plant species is probably not very smart. There has been a long contentious history concerning such analogies. Hard-line nativists or restoration purists have been accused of xenophobia, linked to a Nazi blood-and-soil ideology or ethnic cleansing. The American garden designer Jensen, for example wrote:

“To be true to yourself, I mean true to your native landscape is a very fundamental issue – it is to be or not to be. In the garden you give assent to one idea and outside its boundary to another. Strange things, grotesque things … will creep in and the purity of thoughts in garden making suffers. Freaks are freaks and often bastards – who wants a bastard in the garden, the out of doors shrine of your home?”

However, despite the many disadvantages, I’m intent on exploring this analogy because I believe that climate change necessitates raking through the diverse possibilities of metaphors of human, plant and animal movement: primarily I’m fascinated by the ways in which gardening can stimulate psychic movement, how the admittedly limited freedom of movement and agency I find in gardening and writing about gardening works to offset the curtailment of movement and suppression of agency in other areas of my life; how the activity of giving and receiving moves writing from the page to be received by the land, where gardens become poems written in the elements and in living matter. Where the movement of plants, their global wanderings resist bioregional control, where humans might expand their horizons, collaborate with these global wanderings and adopt the perspective of wild, opportunistic plants. Where the borders around gardens are no longer fixed.

To find new, possibly gentler, more creative and generous ways of living and acting in an imperiled world requires that we alter our perception of what constitutes a garden. Simon Pugh, for example, describes a garden as offering “an image of nature that has been internalised to protect against fear of the ‘outside’ a possible source of panic and fear.” For him, “the garden represents fear as much as it represents control of that fear.” In contrast, I find myself increasingly drawn to the idea of a garden where cultivation does not equal control but instead experimental mixtures of the wild and the artificial, the human and non-human. As a place where, instead of fear, the force and efficacy of growth and generosity opens up a space to critically revisit different practices and their implications.

Such a generous gardening practice was alluded to by Val Plumwood who described gardening as “adaptive,” as a complex project in which the garden negotiates with or comes to terms with its environment. In adaptive gardening there is a dialogical relationship with surrounding elements both of natural and cultural heritage, including the past. This accurately reflects the gardening practice in some of the famous Blue Mountains gardens in Mount Wilson, which contrary to popular belief, sought from the time they were established to create a synthesis of the global and local. It has become commonplace to interpret these gardens as stemming from a colonial disdain for Australian flora. The attitudes of the first resident gardeners were, however, more complex. Although without doubt well-to-do and colonial in attitude, rather than slavishly recreating English gardens of the time they planted a wide diversity of cool climate plants while being equally fascinated by the natural history of the area and collecting indigenous plants and corresponding with experts in Sydney.

This resulted in the 1920s in a complete survey of the vegetation conducted by Sydney University – the first ecological study undertaken in Australia. Ultimately these gardeners’ passion for natural history led to the early conservation of much of the vegetation in reserves long before the creation of the national parks or the granting of world heritage status.

In the 20th century some of these gardens were bought by botanists who scoured the world for rare and spectacular plants as well as raising hybrids and variants of their own. These gardeners, then, rather than recreating a narrowly nostalgic replica of the English garden epitomized the blending of local and global.

A present-day example is Merry Garth which features a wide selection of plants from the European Alps, the Rocky Mountains and natives of Spain, Portugal, New Zealand and Japan. This planting blends with indigenous flora – tall tree ferns, most over 200 years old and in the lower section indigenous remnant rainforest species including giant Banksia integrifolia blend into the bush.

It is, of course, easy to romanticize these gardens, to see them as typifying some high point in Blue Mountains gardening from which the dictates of climate change make decline the only option. It is true that they are examples of a more conservative understanding of the garden, where the gardener must constantly battle against the gathering chaos on the other side of the fence. It is also true that the more the climate changes, the less adapted these gardens will be to current conditions. If fire and water regimes fundamentally change trying to maintain them will be difficult, if not impossible.

However, I prefer not to describe these gardens as on the cusp of decline but to imagine them as a stepping off point for developing gardens in which uncertainty and anxiety gives way to meaningful action, action that not only enhances our humanity but reduces the impact of our rapacious human-centered activities. Such gardens would be understood as generous not only towards exotic plants but would also include modifying our attitude towards those despised species known as weeds.

For me the first step in coming to terms with the notion of an open and generous garden is not simply to understand a garden as a miniature version of global climate problems but to reverse this metaphor and examine how the positive and negative aspects of large-scale processes and big-picture global patterns might transform dwelling in a garden into a new poetics in which fundamental boundaries begin to come undone or be traversed.

With this in mind I want to argue that caring for a garden demands an alternative grammar, a counter-text which, like the subaltern writing of postcolonial resistance and diaspora refuses preservation, the fusion to roots, yet also refuses displacement without an investigation or counter-practice. My focus is on what might constitute this counter-practice, in terms of our stance towards both plant and human life.

Proponents of re-wilding, such as Emma Marris and French gardener Gilles Clement provide versions of this sort of counter-practice through an examination of the long-term results of movement among plant species. Emma Marris in her book The Rambunctious Garden describes the unruly entanglement of weedy species that follow in our wake. She writes of how:

“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 argues that because nature is ever-changing, on the scale of Earth’s history these rambunctious gardens are as legitimate as any other manifestation of nature. We should, she says, embrace our creations not shun them as monsters.

I admit, at first reading I’m appalled. I think of numerous agricultural or forestry creations that have proved to be truly monstrous in their effect on climate change, biodiversity and human communities. I think of David Quammen writing of the unavoidable prospect of a planet of weeds which he describes as a “crummier place, a lonelier and uglier place, and a particularly wretched place for the two billion people comprising Alan Durning’s absolute poor.” Although my ideal is a generous garden I have perversely spent a lifetime regarding a garden as an oasis, a peaceful enclave protected from unwanted weeds, undesirable invasive species. So, how can I learn to embrace this monstrous world of our making? Is it possible let alone desirable to resist it?

Marris is neither especially concerned with economically and socially disadvantaged people nor with private gardens. Her concern is with advocating human intervention, arguing that in “different places, in different chunks, we should manage nature for different ends – for historical restoration, for species preservation, for self-willed wildness, for ecosystem services, for food and fiber and fish and flame trees and frogs.”

I find Marris most persuasive, where she proposes one solution that applies to all her different goals: to preserve open land, to protect it from development even if it is a so-called ‘trash ecosystem’. Marris asks us to renounce nostalgia and celebrate a biological order that evolves over vast periods of time. She writes, “this conscious and responsible and joyful co-habitation is the future of our planet, our vibrant, thriving, rambunctious garden.”

However, I find it is Gilles Clement whose celebration of an evolving world that is moving from a mosaic of cultural and biological monads, closed in on themselves, to one of multiple interconnections that opens up for me a space for generous gardening. Clement includes the global movement of people at the same time as he critiques the human urge to control nature. He calls for a new way of conceptualizing nature that asks us to re-envision what he calls the “third landscape,” the space where nature is left to its own unsanctioned processes. He sees these areas as a place of refuge for diversity, a genetic reservoir for the planet, in which the movement and agency of plants is beyond human control.

Clement does not see this move from local to global as part of the globalising logic of reducing difference and standardizing solutions. Rather he views globalisation from the perspective of generosity towards the diversity of beings and practices that challenge human notions of order and permanence.

He moves between writing – novels, essays, papers – and making interventions in landscape, seeking a type of love, of giving and receiving in our world that points towards a poetics of interstices, crossing boundaries and engaging with inventive and exuberant life.

In his writing on the third landscape he brings into focus agency beyond the human, critiquing a fusion to roots and investigating the displacement of human control. He offers a vision of counter-practice which critiques a style of human politics and legislation that imposes obstacles to the free biological movements of plants, to the freedom of people to give and receive.

Here are some sections from his In Praise of Vagabonds:

“Plants travel. Especially grasses. They move about as quietly as the wind. We can’t do much about the wind.

Were we to harvest clouds we would be astonished to find a weightless seed mixed in the loess, a fertile dust. Unpredictable landscapes take shape in the sky.

Chance organizes the details, exploits all possible vectors for the distribution of species. Everything is conducive to travel, from marine currents to shoe soles. Travel essentially belongs to animals. Nature charters berry-eating birds, gardening ants, calm subversive sheep, whose wool holds field upon field of seed. And the human – an animal shaken by incessant movements, free trader of diversity.

Evolution benefits from all this, not society. The slightest management problem runs up against provisional timetables … possibilities emerge at every moment. How can we manage the landscape and manage its expenses if it is transformed at the whim of hurricanes? What technocratic grid could we apply to the overflow of nature, to its violence?

In the face of winds and birds, the question of what to regulate remains. Innovative nature sends the legislator back to his documents, in search of reassuring language.

And if we were to ensure against life? Such a project – security at all costs – finds unlikely company among the ecological radicals, the keepers of nostalgia. Nothing should change, our past depends on it say the ones; nothing should change, diversity depends on it, say the others. Everyone rails against the vagabonds.

Discourse goes further. As a politics, it brings minds together around the necessity of eradicating species that come from elsewhere. What will we become if strangers take our ground? We speak of survival. …

To begin with, we oppose life-forms that have no business here … Eliminate first; we’ll look into it afterward. … We prepare a lawsuit, establish a protocol for action; we wage war.”

Clement’s writing on the third landscape provides a glimpse of how uncultivated areas might be celebrated in writing; of how such writing might critique regulations on the movement of people as well as plants. However, he is also a gardener and as a gardener he speaks and writes of the questions that unite the garden and the landscape. He calls for the borders between garden and non-garden to vanish into the “Planetary Garden.” Instead of being limited to a small space that we attempt to control, “the garden is placed within the limits of the biosphere. This is the new enclosure,” in which global mixing is essential to evolutionary process, including that of the human.

The Planetary Garden, clearly closely resembles Marris’ rambunctious garden about which I have had such misgivings. When I ask myself whether I am capable of altering my gardening practice to be more in harmony with the ideas proposed by Marris and Clement I find there is little in their visions

to allay my anxiety, the underlying dis-ease I feel when gardening. Albrecht refers to this as eco-anxiety, as “the generalized sense that the ecological foundations of existence are in the process of collapse.”

The core of my conflicted feelings stems I believe from Marris’ and Clement’s enthusiasm which has allowed them to jump across a psychological barrier without pausing to consider that climate change is as much a psychic phenomenon as it is a concern over biodiversity and geophysics. Before we can celebrate life in the rambunctious or planetary garden we need to find a passage through despair and melancholy. We need to learn how to read loss as a source of future possibility. We need to accept the weedy aliens lurking in our psyches as having an equal right to dwell within us.

It is such acceptance without resignation or denial that Bill Plotkin describes in “Rewilding Psychology.” He argues that “a mature ecotherapy does not attempt to decrease our anxiety, outrage, fear, grief, or despair in response to the ongoing industrial destruction of the biosphere; rather, it helps us more fully experience these feelings so that we can revitalize ourselves emotionally and, in so doing, enable our greatest contributions to a cultural renaissance.”

So, how exactly do we “work through” a wicked problem that includes not only eco-anxiety but also what has become known as solastalgia. Solastalgia is defined as that sense of distress people experience when valued natural environments are negatively transformed. It is the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where we reside and love is under assault. Solastalgia is not about looking back to some imagined golden age, nor is it about moving, finding another home; it is about the dislocation and distress experienced when a loved place is destroyed.

I believe solastalgia can equally be applied to anticipating with dread changes that are yet to happen. So how might we develop a counter-flow of theory and action that replaces a sense of powerlessness with agency and empowerment, enabling a joyful kinship with ‘impure’ gardens that are part-controlled, part-trash ecosystems? And on the broader front how can we extend our generosity to those whose have been displaced from their beloved homes and left adrift, confronted wherever they turn by barriers and blockades?

Once again I find myself drawn back to the individual response. The only solution I have been able to find is a personal one: to recognise and accept my own tiny sphere of influence; of the need to creatively change my practice in gardening and writing, believing, hoping, that relatively small changes can advance the possibility that alternative forms of gardening and writing can become sites for political change, change that will be kindly disposed to those in need.

Without doubt both global and local political and climatic changes have left me grappling with ways to bring my garden experiences into language.

When I try to envisage Australian rambunctious garden writing or writing of the third landscape it seems essential that it encompass rather than discard our particular heritage in which writers have struggled with Indigenous dispossession as well as imported concepts of Romanticism and the pastoral.

Also it is only when we become capable of setting aside our fears and anxieties about change that a generous attitude can enter, bringing with it the realisation that movement does not necessarily bring chaos. Clement, for example, describes how the new breed of gardener would tend a garden. S/he “… keeps an attentive eye on the wanderings of the plants and animals and that enter into the garden.” This allows “everything present in the garden to play an equal role in producing a dense and richly overlapping whole.” The arrival of a new “weed” in the garden might be met with interest and observation – how will this plant interact with others? Does it provide food for insects? How does it affect the overall appearance and experiential qualities of the garden? This does not imply a free-for-all chaos. If a plant proves to have overly “invasive” propensities it can be limited through well-timed interventions. What it does imply is the search for ethical stability rather than a yearning for the past.

These new concepts in garden design take movement and plant agency into consideration. The naturalistic planting movement of Piet Oudolf, in particular, has become a significant global influence. Throughout Europe, urban areas have been planted in parallel with third landscapes to provide city habitats. These small gardens on traffic islands and streetscapes include perennials that self-seed and constantly regenerate themselves. Seed heads are left over the winter to provide food for birds. Oudolf’s work might be thought of as a counter-practice that adapts to aspects of the rambunctious garden yet resists the demise of the garden as such.

The high plant density in an Oudolf garden is a fundamental major break with the past. Density approaching that found in natural plant communities is far more resilient than traditional garden planting with spaces between plants. Plant communities are chosen for their hardiness as well as their aesthetic appeal and suitability for local growing conditions. The high level of diversity and openness to dynamic change that biodiversity needs is taken into account, thereby creating a plant community aimed at creating a convergence of ecology and design.

Such gardens combine the traditional gardener’s passion for unusual herbaceous perennials, trees and shrubs but place them in combinations with both exotic and native grasses. By allowing plants to spread and self-seed notions of order and permanence are challenged. These gardens draw strength from the movement of vibrant plant growth, collaborating with the agency of global wanderings, celebrating an ethos of interconnectedness. I have come to believe this is what gardening is about – giving and receiving to cultivate a terrain of hope where we can live with other species and aid them in their inventiveness. Likewise, we can celebrate human communities that are diverse and open to dynamic change; communities in which generosity flourishes.

As Gilles Clement writes:

“the future lies not in any precise place. It lies between. Between the apparently fixed points marking our path. The landscape under construction will always host more vagabonds than permanently secured beings. Mobile beings, in our image, vagabonds invent solutions for existence.

They accompany us.

Let us join them.”

Without doubt climate change has altered how gardens are designed and how they are “policed”; it has given rise to much anxiety and terrible fear of species losses, human displacement and hunger. But in my daily examinations of how fragile or endangered plants might be suffering in my garden or how many exotic “weeds” have crossed the fence; in my daily perusing of the news headlines of how many people are desperately escaping across borders from life-threatening situations I constantly bring to mind Raine Maria Rilke who wrote, “perhaps everything terrible is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that needs our love.”



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