Michael Pollan Takes on Native Plant Ideology

Someone sent us a New York Times magazine article by author and UC Berkeley professor Michael Pollan, he of the locavore food fame.

He describes the storm of letters he received when he published a story about his failed attempt to create a “natural garden” in his yard. This prompted him to look more closely into the whole Native Plant movement.

You can read the article, Against Nativism, here.

The article touches on the need for weeding and herbicides to maintain Native Gardens; the Nazi German precedents; notes that migrations of species are natural and it’s futile to attempt to block them; and ends with an endorsement of “multihorticulturalism” — an acceptance of multiple species from everywhere, on their own merits.

This is important at a time when eucalyptus has been demonized as a “foreign weed” and using herbicide for years to destroy it for some reason sounds like a fair trade-off. We imagine that the need for Save Sutro wouldn’t even exist if the trees there were some other species.

Eucalyptus is indeed foreign to this land (as are most of us!) but whether it is a weed or not depends entirely on whether we desire it at a particular location. A “weed” is merely a plant in the wrong place – one that is not fulfilling the role we people wish in the place it’s growing.

Some quotes from his article:

On the practical aspects of nativism – and the inevitable need for herbicides:

“At this late date, after the flora of this continent have been transformed irrevocably by the introduction of Eurasian species, a garden of native plants won’t long remain one without ceaseless and sedulous weeding. This fact ties the natural garden up in some uncomfortable environmental knots. Many of its advocates … find themselves condoning, albeit mumblingly, the use of herbicides as a way to create the clean horticultural slate required to establish a native-plant meadow.”

On the historic roots of native plant movements:

“I had always assumed that the apotheosis of the native plant was a new phenomenon, a byproduct of our deepening environmental awareness. But it turns out that there have been outbreaks of native-plant mania before, most notably in Germany…”

Where? Strangely enough, in Nazi Germany.

“… pre-World War II Germany saw the rise of a natural-gardening movement “founded on nationalistic and racist ideas” that were often cloaked in scientific jargon. Inspired by the study of “plant sociology,” a group of landscape designers set out—as one of their number put it in 1939—”to give the German people its characteristic garden and to help guard it from unwholesome alien influences,” including foreign plants and landscape formality, which they condemned as both anthropocentric and apt to weaken the “Nordic races.””

He disclaims the fascist link, naturally, being a reasonable man.

“Am I implying that natural gardening in America is a crypto-Fascist movement? I hope not. I mention the historical precedent partly to suggest that the “new American garden” is neither as new nor as American as its proponents would have us think.”

America’s flora, it turns out, are as global as America’s people.

“migrations of species by whatever means is an abiding part of natural history; in any event, they’re almost always irreversible. Turning back the ecological clock to 1492 is a fool’s errand, futile and pointless to boot. It seems to me we gardeners would do better to try to work with the mongrel ecology we’ve inherited—to start out from here.”

He does make a plea for a more inclusive movement.

“But if we must have a national garden style, there’s no reason it has to be xenophobic, or founded on illusions of a lost American Eden. Wouldn’t a more cosmopolitan garden, one that borrowed freely from all the world’s styles and floras, that made something of history rather than trying to escape it—wouldn’t such a garden be more in keeping with the American experience?”

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5 Responses to Michael Pollan Takes on Native Plant Ideology

  1. Big Tree says:

    Check out Judith Belzer’s website, Michael Pollan’s wife, for her amazing paintings, shown in New York and the Sonoma County Museum, of our favorite — the Eucalyptus tree. The East Coast show is with leaves and the West Coast show is the awesome patterns of just the bark, trunk and branches. Wow! The best! However, the Japanese culture has revered Eucalyptus trees for centuries.

    Judith Belzer: http://judithbelzer.com/work.html

    West Coast: http://judithbelzer.com/work/files/previous_west_coast/previous_west_coast.html

    Trees Inside Out: LA Times http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2009/06/judith-belzer-818-dosa-gallery-.html

    Inner Life of Trees: SF Chronicle

  2. savesutro says:

    Wonderful art! Thanks for these links.

  3. Pingback: Conversation with Charlie: Native Plants, Chaparral « Save Mount Sutro Forest

  4. Charlie says:

    this was a really nasty article. Godwin’s law at work. Too bad since I like some of the other stuff M.P. said.

    • webmaster says:

      Actually, it’s not a Godwin’s Law situation… that applies to comparisons with Hitler/ Nazis. Here, Pollan is talking about actual historical antecedents. He specifically disavows the simile.

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