Strengthening the Biotic Community

From Wild Ones
Update: this post has been crossposted at Energy Bulletin under the title "Gardening is about more than vegetables." If you haven't visited it, Energy Bulletin is a portal for energy and sustainable living news from worldwide sources under the auspices of the Post Carbon Institute.

Perhaps you have heard that, according to a new scientific report (See Guardian article here), one fifth of plants face extinction, primarily because of human destruction of habitat, which includes logging, agriculture and building new infrastructure. As an ecological gardener, I take this news as a personal call to action, since my vocation is to help increase biodiversity, through gardening, teaching, and volunteering for conservation activities. When I heard that news, I thought of the great conservationist Aldo Leopold’s succinct distillation of his “land ethic:”

“A thing is right when it tends to strengthen the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Leopold’s statement has, in some circles, become something of a cliché, and in other places has been criticized either for not going far enough or for not leaving room for humans. (See this essay at the Yale Forum of Religion and Ecology). I believe its epigrammatic, prescriptive statement of the deep morality at the center of environmentally-ethical behavior applies not only to wild areas, or to landscape preservation and restoration, but like Michael Rosenzweig’s more recent concept of reconciliation ecology, applies equally to cities and suburbs. The land ethic, like nature, doesn’t stop at the garden gate and doesn’t go away because we “own” a piece of land. Recognize it or not, like it or not, we are part of the biotic community. Fortunately, many gardeners have a natural understanding of this. Yet it bears repeating.

My first, biggest gardening question is always, “how will my gardening help the biotic community?” which means the ecosystem and all the plants and animals—all the living things, including me —and the habitats they simultaneously live in and form. And I ask further questions: Am I making my garden so that it is of a piece with the surrounding native ecosystem (integrity)? So that it could function without me for a period of time (stability)? So that it not only pleases my human senses, but also those of bees or hummingbirds, and demonstrates elegance in the way the parts function together (beauty)? Even though I don’t know enough to understand even a tiny fraction of the millions of relationships that structure the biotic community--or to put it another way, all the inputs, outputs, flows and processes that form this complex nonlinear system--nevertheless, I strive to learn and act mindfully.

Attempting to answer these questions has led me to learn as much as I can about my place, this Chicago wilderness region that is my home—its natural and human history, its physical characteristics, its present inhabitants, human and otherwise—and to develop a deep and abiding love of the land. My answers to these questions, which frequently change as I learn, govern everything I do in the garden—from design and plant choices to cultivation methods and water management. The answers will be different for each gardener, depending on where he or she lives.

As a gardener, when I learned of the damage caused by synthetic fertilizer run off, I stopped using it and learned to nourish the living soil with compost. When I learned of the complex interactions among birds, insects and native plants, I stopped using pesticides and started planting natives; biodiversity increased in obvious, exhilarating ways.

But that report underscores a crucial concern of mine, of which some gardeners remain unaware: Even if you garden organically, but plant everything to exotic ornamental hybrids and/or vegetables, you are still reducing habitat, reducing biodiversity and negatively impacting populations of wild native plants on whom we and other creatures depend, even if their utility is not immediately obvious. This is something many otherwise sustainable gardeners seem to forget, especially in urbanized areas. Even some permaculturalists, because of their emphasis on human food plants from all over the world, can forget the local biotic community in which they live. We should all learn, as Douglas Tallamy suggests, to "bring nature home," or to leave a corner for Thoreau’s "necessary wildness."

Ever since I first read A Sand County Almanac as a young girl, the land ethic has functioned as part of my moral bedrock, strong as the dolomite of the Niagara escarpment that rings the southern Great Lakes, persistent as the cup plants that flourish in prairie remnants. It helps govern my beliefs, attitudes, opinions, and actions. That sense of moral concern hasn’t stayed in the garden, either; I’ve become mindful of how my entire way of life impacts the biotic community. It has led me, and my whole family, to carefully consider where and how to live. Long ago we decided to live close to public transport and have, over the years, gradually nearly ceased flying, become vegetarian, reduced our driving in favor of biking and walking, decreased our overall energy use, begun to eat more sustainably and locally, and on and on. (We do not, by the way, feel deprived.) In short, by attempting to live mindful of our places as members of the biotic community, we have re-examined and changed our lives. Have we done enough? Probably not, but we’re working on it.

The land ethic also serves, for me, as a moral context for any consideration of such things as overpopulation, peak oil (and resulting desecrations such as the tar sands), climate change, industrial agriculture, mountaintop removal, urban sprawl, and so forth. We humans have the right to live, to take our sustenance from this good earth, and inevitably what we do will have impact—yet we must always be aware that we are members of the biotic community with other species, who also have claim. What right do we have to wantonly destroy habitat simply for human convenience, what we imagine to be profit, or as a “necessary byproduct” of human civilization? As we destroy the biotic community we are destroying ourselves. If we were to behave as responsible citizens, we wouldn’t be in such a predicament. Old, old news—yet it, too, bears endless repeating.

There are many different expressions of the land ethic, embedded in the belief systems, cultural narratives, myths, and stories of many different cultures—it is a universal human understanding. I keep this version especially close to my heart because the man who formulated it understood, helped restore, and wrote movingly about the upper Midwest, my home landscape. Gardeners—including anyone with even the tiniest scrap of land or even a few outdoor containers—have a special privilege and responsibility to act on this understanding, and to actively help strengthen the biotic community. We have the power to do so in real, measurable ways; much depends on how we use that power, on whether we will act as tyrants or citizens on our own home ground.

Related Posts:
 Ecological Reality Is Not What You Hypothesize 
Attracting Native Pollinators: The Xerces Society Guide
Two Classic Accounts of Living with Nature
Why We Should Garden with Biodversity in Mind


Benjamin Vogt said…
Holy pefect diatribe Batman. We've stopped flying more for the fact it's expensive and the experience is 10 times worse than it was 5 years ago. But my wife has started washing her hair with vinegar, using olive oil on her skin, we now use cloth paper towels. Of course I pick my garden plants to math nebraska, and have planted trees to lengthen the thinning tree line that ends on my enighbor's plot--birds use a corridor between the houses and this tree line all the time, like a trench in world war 1, and it is a world war. Anyway, fantastic post here.
Thanks for the good words, Benjamin.
Glad you're doing what you can, too.

One thing I'm getting really interested in is hedgerows--it sounds like you have the beginnings of one along the property line.
Elephant's Eye said…
Can't do hedgerows, we have a wall. BUT we did leave open sections along the bottom. Frogs and snakes This Way Please. One of our neighbours has meticulously sealed off the openings. We tried. And our visitors want to come again - it is so green, and the birds ;>)
Hi Elephant's Eye,

That's too bad about your neighbor. Some people just don't get it.
Heather said…
Great post. I'm watching my neighbors yard get scraped and chopped bare by their newly hired landscape architect and her expression of the land ethic. We need change at all levels of land stewardship from gardeners on up. I agree with Benjamin that green corridors can play a significant role in animal movement through our yards. Why wouldn't you want an uninterrupted squirrel, bird and critter highway in your yard?
Hi Heather,

Thanks for stopping by. I've been unable to post comments at your blog for some reason. Maybe it's a google glitch. I was a landscape design dropout myself. The horticultural industry could do with a few changes, too.
Dave Coulter said…
Any post that mentions Aldo Leopold AND the Niagara Escarpment is a fine one. I hope you don't mind if I link to it :)
Hi Dave,

Please do & thanks.
jeansgarden said…
Adrian, Another wonderfully challenging and thought-provoking post. You always challenge me to do more and keep me from lapsing into self-satisfied passivity. Thanks! -Jean