Our rambunctious Earth

Environmental writer Emma Marris on saving the planet

By Kristen Wicker

Photo: Emma Marris, author of “Rambunctious Garden,” will be a keynote speaker at the Natural Areas Conference

Emma Marris has traveled the world researching and writing about environmental issues and natural spaces, but she wants you to pay more attention to the nature right outside your door.

Marris, a freelance environmental writer based in Oregon, will be a keynote speaker at the 41st annual Natural Areas Conference, which will be hosted by Five Rivers MetroParks this week in Dayton. In 2011, she published her first book, “Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World,” which highlights alternative conservation strategies that don’t focus on holding land or returning it to its pristine, pre-human state. Marris argues that, with climate change, humans have impacted even the most remote parts of the globe – meaning it is time for environmentalists to add new approaches to existing tools. We talked to Marris about some of her ideas.

In “Rambunctious Garden,” you write about smaller, fragmented natural areas. What is the value of these areas?

There are a lot of natural areas that are tiny, and we should not devalue them completely if we can’t have a large, historical ecosystem there. There are many goals we can achieve in smaller spaces. We can host rare and endangered plants, insects and butterflies. We can create stopping points for migrating insects and birds.

And these spaces tend to be closer to people. I’ve been thinking about the many ways we put value on a single tree. That value can be measured by how much carbon it’s storing, whether it’s a rare tree, the habitat it’s providing and what its role is in the ecosystem. But we also can measure its inspiration value: How many kids have climbed its branches? How many people have sat in its shade? With this inspiration value, a tree in a city park will kick the butt of a tree in some huge, vast area because the city tree has touched so many people’s lives. – Emma Marris

Can you explain your alternative conservation approaches, such as the embrace of “novel ecosystems?”

The world is filled with examples of novel ecosystems, including every empty lot that no one’s managing. About a year ago, I visited an abandoned railway line in Philadelphia. It had a super diverse ecosystem, with different physical structures; an understory canopy; lots of elm trees; groundhogs; monarchs; ladybugs; tons of bird species; gardening plants and common non-natives – it was a total mix and very fascinating.

When people see a space like that, it may look like a big weed patch but it has at least two values: One, it’s not developed; it’s green space with living things and surprisingly diverse. Two, there’s scientific value – it helps us learn from nature and how climate change impacts ecosystems. We can learn what species combinations do well in this environment and take lessons from that when we are intervening more.

The other value for me is these places really are wild. Increasingly, places thought of as “great wildernesses” are managed pretty heavily to keep them looking that way, but we also want true wildness in the world. These small natural areas are actually wilder than grand, national parks. – EM

How does all this fit with traditional conservation approaches?

That’s where these ideas get more controversial. When I’m talking about alternative conservation strategies, I’m not saying we shouldn’t manage any historical areas for nature. But it’s smart in a changing world to diversify our strategies. We’re not sure what the future holds and where and how climate change will play out. Some areas we might not want to manage at all and others we might want to let go wild or manage them to alternative states. – EM

How do the concepts presented in “Rambunctious Garden” apply to the average person?

My real passion is to get the public to check back in with nature. I have a lot of friends for whom nature really is a remote part of their lives, and I kind of blame nature documentaries. They present nature as being really big, pristine areas with stunning, big animals and teach you that is nature. I think we need to accept we have many smaller natural areas without glamorous animals. Bees are wild animals. Small areas are nature. This is an important psychological shift for people to make. If we reframe what counts as nature, we open it up to everybody – everyone can afford it now. – EM

When it comes to “making more nature,” what can average people do to help?

People can start to see the nature around them: figure out what species of tree is near your house, take your kids to parks on weekends. Little things like these are a first step. Almost everyone has some outdoor area, even if it’s a balcony. You can plant things that will help bring more diversity to life. I travel all the time and have no green thumb. So I actually like that I can trust wild nature to take care of plants better than I can. – EM

What do you see as the most pressing environmental issue facing the planet today?

I’d say species extinction from habitat loss is number one and climate change is number two. We still haven’t seen the worst of that. Ultimately, the biggest threat to the planet is people not caring. That’s why we don’t want outdoor recreation or loving nature to be an elite pursuit people perceive as something we can only do in big, remote areas. We want to democratize the experience of getting swept away by the beauty of nature. – EM

The Natural Areas Conference will be held Wednesday, Oct. 15 through Friday, Oct. 17 at the Dayton Convention Center, 22 E. Fifth St. The public is invited to attend an Open Space Mic Night from 7:30-10 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 15, at RiverScape MetroPark, 111 E. Monument Ave. For more information, please visit naturalareasconference.org.

Reach DCP freelance writer Kristen Wicker at KristenWicker@DaytonCityPaper.com.Page

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