Novel ecosystems vs. urban wilderness

Novel ecosystems vs. urban wilderness

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I’ve been thinking about a symposium (“The Changing Nature of Nature in Cities”) I attended at the New York Botanical Garden in November.   The topic  of the symposium was “novel ecosystems” – fundamentally, this is the idea that some ecosystems, especially urban ones, have been so radically transformed that it is impossible or impractical to restore them to a native status.  If the soil consists largely of construction rubble or has been chemically altered by decades of polluted rainfall, and the climate is changed (by the urban heat island effect) does it make sense to remove whatever has proven adapted, even if that is ailanthus trees?  As Peter Del Tredici, one of the symposium’s speakers, suggested, perhaps such weeds are the real natives of these artificial ecosystems.  Perhaps we should be embracing this new incarnation of the wild, suggested environmental writer Emma Marris.

Bronx River gorge in the New York Botanical Garden forest

The location of the symposium was a poignant one for me.  As a student at the New York Botanical Garden in the 1970’s, I loved the melting pot of the Garden’s 100-acre forest.   In it mingled all sorts of strange, exotic plants, squirrels lived side by side with a wild parrot, and one member of the NYBG arboretum crew had, for a while, homesteaded there, growing vegetables on an island in the Bronx River.  It was a dream-like, Henri Rousseau-esque landscape.  Any hard rain turned up glass marbles, relics of a slingshot-armed street gang of the 1960’s, the “Ducky Boys,”  who were, arguably, as native to that setting as the Indians who had carved a turtle petroglyph on a boulder there.

Nearly all of this has been swept away as the Botanical Garden administration has attempted to return the forest to its native state.  Yet natural recruitment of native plants has proven problematical in this island of vegetation surrounded by miles of asphalt, and native plants struggle to compete in a soil that has been so enriched with nitrates from auto exhaust and air pollution.  Todd

Forrest, NYBG vice president for horticulture, admitted that it can be a challenge to find and insert any native species that will reproduce naturally in many ecological niches within this “novel” setting.

I understand the need for such attempts to restore ecosystems within the city; the NYBG forest has become an important center for studying techniques and challenges.  But I miss the unique vitality of the forest I knew; it epitomized the living New York in a way that the current museum display cannot.   I suspect that coming to terms with, and learning to respect, the novel ecosystems growing up around us is, as the symposium speakers insisted, going to be a key to connecting with our 21st century wild, and learning to respect and treasure Nature in all its incarnations.

Posted by

Thomas Christopher
on December 19, 2014 at 8:30 am, in the category Gardening on the Planet.

10 Comments
    • ProfessorRoush
    • 25th July 2016

    Well, it is a slight step away, IMO, from the naturalistic school but it makes sense. There are areas of the planet now, I suppose, that would require transplantation to Pluto so those areas could completely returned to natural here.

    • kermit
    • 19th August 2016

    I suspect that the area which will be fundamental to any change which has a hope of sustaining the health of our planet and biodiversity is acknowledging that we humans cannot keep expanding our population forever. There are no ways of doing agriculture that can be expanded indefinitely, and people have to eat. I certainly agree with you otherwise, and the gist of this article, but whether we think the planet can hold ten billion, or one, or only one hundred million, there is a limit.

    • admin
    • 6th October 2016

    Interestingly, the recent recession may have caused a “cultural shift” among Hispanic women here in the U.S.

    • Thomas Christopher
    • 19th October 2016

    Thanks for the welcomes and the comments. I agree with you Marcia, that our lifestyle and our economics place little value on natural areas. And Allen, we haven’t felt the impact of the emerald ash borer yet in my hometown, but it is coming and, as a state forester put it, “kiss your ash good-bye”. Another tragic loss.

    • Benjamin Vogt
    • 10th November 2016

    “I suspect that coming to terms with, and learning to respect, the novel ecosystems growing up around us is, as the symposium speakers insisted, going to be a key to connecting with our 21st century wild, and learning to respect and treasure Nature in all its incarnations.”

    • Thomas Christopher
    • 14th November 2016

    I disagree (respectfully) that the idea that Nature no longer exists merely because humans have had a pervasive impact on it. The natural world and its dynamics still rules the planet, even if we have managed to temporarily deform or damage it. We have the knowledge we need to partner with it, rather than just exploit it, and if we want to have a future, that is what we must do. Nature is always evolving and changing — we are (tragically) destroying much that was beautiful, but something beautiful and new will appear in its place. The question is whether we want to be a part of that. That’s the wonderful thing about gardening, it offers us a way to partner constructively with Nature if we choose.

    • Saxon
    • 14th November 2016

    The more we learn about the ways humans have always altered the landscapes (think native American burning the prairies), the more it seems we are always living in novel landscapes. Our job now is make them as organic and sustainable as possible with resource available to us. Whether folks in NYC want to spend efforts at Botanic Garden or the High Line, is all good.
    Does it seem sometimes that folks in the cities long for wildness, while folks in the country want to tame the wildness?

    • Diana
    • 14th November 2016

    Great topic and one I frequently contemplate as I choose plants for my garden. My climate zone is warmer than the one my locally raised neighbors grew up with and the weather patterns are changing so their “old reliable” plants may not be so reliable and growing with natives? Many of the (formerly) native plans do not do well in the disrupted soil of my yard or in the new climate here.

    • Steve
    • 14th November 2016

    Important topic. I am a strong advocate for the use of native plants in the landscape, but I am no purist. My biggest concern regarding the concept of novel ecosystems is that some people will argue that since everything is changing all of the time, why even bother to protect the remaining “wild” landscapes and native species This blog is not making such an argument, but it’s just a matter of time before someone does.

    • Robert Kourik
    • 15th November 2016

    Here’s Emma’s very thought provoking book. Emma Marris, “Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World” (Bloomsbury, $25),

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