Engineering Eden

Manipulation of the natural world is a fundamental tenet of gardening. That we do it under the guise of “improving” a situation we are presented with cannot skirt the fact that we are taking what is and making it what we want it to be. Because this may occur (more often everyday) in the context of what is already a human-altered state of affairs does not reduce the importance of what some consider an arrogant mindset.

Connecting to other disciplines, working through their thought processes and applying the lessons learned to the garden is a valuable exercise for the thinking gardener. To be sure there are those with no inclination to examine the why’s and wherefore’s, but those with interest will be able to add another layer of enjoyment to their gardens.

In this context I offer a look at a fascinating new book, Engineering Eden: The True Story of a Violent Death, a Trial, and the Fight Over Controlling Nature, by Jordan Fisher Smith (Crown Publishing, New York, 2016, $28.00).


The book is nominally about management efforts, effective and not, for black bear, grizzly bear, elk, fire, and forest in the national parks. It weaves together the stories of the national parks, a gruesome death at the jaws and paws of a bear, the subsequent trial over the parks’ management policies, and the history of the fight to control nature. In truth it goes far deeper, addressing what is often our simultaneous fear of, romantic fascination with, and desire to wring resources from, the natural. When read in the context of our management of nature through gardening, the book provides much food for thought.

It is based on a grand statement, and an even grander question. The statement was the very justification for the creation of the national parks—that some places needed to be protected because of, “…the most fundamental characteristic of human civilization: the alteration of everything we touch[ed].”

The question? In our efforts to protect and preserve, should we be guardians or gardeners? How much, in other words, should we do? Should we be guardians and simply let natural systems and processes play out their roles? Or should we actively manage to improve the chances for an outcome we deem more appropriate? How much is enough/too much?

Gardeners understand the statement. It is the essence of the activity of gardening. The questions, however, are not often addressed out loud. We take it for granted that we must be more than guardians. Even those who love native plants/gardens, prairie and/or bog gardening and restoration ecology, seldom consider whether just letting things be should be the proper course of action. Things have just gotten too out-of-hand. There is far too much water over the dam. Botanical and other public gardens grapple with this on a regular basis–but invariably default to the “management” side.  Botanical gardens with “natural” areas who do NOT manage (think, trail maintenance, exotic/invasive control, tree management, prescribed fire or mowing) are vanishingly rare. We assume that what we do makes things better; moreover that it keeps things “natural.”

The decision to manage connects process to outcome. In the lawsuit at the center of Engineering Eden it was the management activity of the national parks that was called into question. Whether in parks, or in gardens, the activity that constitutes management has the potential to create liability—hence the trials that spill from ‘acts of nature’ like bear attacks, falling trees, moving water, and poisonous plants.

The mandate of the national parks was a paradox; to function as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people (to say nothing of institutional resource extraction), and at the same time “provide for preservation, from injury or spoliation, of all…natural curiosities, or wonders within said park, and retention in their natural condition.” This set up the uncomfortable bifurcation of conservation: utility vs. glory.

Well known names in the natural science, ecology and conservation fields peopled teams on either side of the divide and Smith’s recounting of the battles between the “guardians” and the “gardeners” and the evolving shifts in thought and management, were the most interesting part of the book.

The history of botanical gardens has similar arc. So much so that when the Ecological Society of America was formed in 1915 and one of its first acts was to, “express concern about the competing roles of national parks as tourist resorts and nature refuges, which, they said, had gravitated far more to accommodating visitors than preserving a biological legacy,” it could have been speaking about the traditional roles of botanical gardens as institutions of science, learning and conservation; and the current trend toward non-botanical/horticultural event venues and being pleasure parks.

Smith writes in a style and pacing familiar to readers of The New Yorker long form. He moves smoothly from essay to science writing to historical journalism and trial reportage. Through it all the Engineering Eden is a sobering look at a history that is seldom told and little known. It’s probably no accident that it debuts in the 100th anniversary year of the national park service. Hopefully the story will not be lost in the celebration.

At the end of the day, national parks ARE gardens. When Starker Leopold spoke to the Sierra Club’s Fourth Biennial Wilderness Conference in 1955 he said that wilderness areas should be managed, “to simulate original conditions as closely as possible.” (emphasis added). Smith unpacks that statement in a thought-provoking and critical way, stressing the difference between a simulation or “approximation” and “precise re-creation .” Tellingly, he writes, “…a simulation had a maker. It was not a thing in itself, but rather the product of an intention in the maker for the benefit of a viewer or user...” (emphasis added).

What Smith has just done is provide a clear and unambiguous definition of, “garden.” And Leopold’s point was that to be a guardian, you have to be a gardener.

An entire public sector bureaucracy has mushroomed to deal with our national open spaces, the resources they contain, and the conservation of the life forms and processes that inhabit them. There is no going back. By as early as the 1920’s the “balance of nature” was irretrievably broken, and now some of the elements needed to even approximate pre-settlement conditions are gone and not coming back. Smith concludes that the big questions haven’t been answered…and he argues they shouldn’t–so they get asked and discussed every time we face a decision about preserving life on earth.
The big questions playing out in our gardens are likewise unanswered. Too often they aren’t even asked. The big take-away from Engineering Eden is that they should be–and honest, respectful discussion should ensue—every time we confront decisions to be made in our most precious spaces.

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