The Garden, Reconsidered

The garden is no exemplar of how to create a right relationship with life on Earth

By Jason Mark

October 21, 2017


Photo by CasarsaGuru/iStock

It was 11 years ago this week that I planted my spade in a patch of soil between eight lanes of freeway and a public housing complex on the southeastern edge of San Francisco. I know how hackneyed and self-mythologizing that might sound: Do-gooder plants farm in the concrete jungle. Back then, however, the urban farming movement was just beginning to take hold. Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma had only recently began its long residency on the best-seller lists, and farm-to-table wasn’t yet all the rage. At that time, when newspapers wrote about urban farming, the phrase usually appeared in quotes. A farm next to a freeway—it was a radical endeavor, in the truest sense of the word. It was an attempt to get to the root of things. 

When a motley crew of guerrilla gardeners and public housing residents and I cofounded Alemany Farm, we set out to grow as much food as possible in a modest amount of space (a scant three and a half acres) and in doing so address the food insecurity that grips poor communities. An urban farm, we thought, could also be an exemplar of the green economy—a way to grow economic opportunities via an ecologically virtuous enterprise. The farm would be a classroom, too, a place to illustrate civilization’s utter and profound reliance on nature. 

But, for me at least, something else was at work. I was determined to see if I could find—or, if necessary, construct—a kind of nature that would be close at hand and near to home. I wanted to show that you didn’t have to go to some far, remote wilderness to connect with nature.

In this desire I was, in some sense, a product of my generation. My ecological awareness was born in the 1990s, a time when some American environmentalists were beginning to question the primacy of wilderness as the ideal of nonhuman nature. In a now-famous (or infamous) 1995 essay published in the New York Times Magazine, “The Trouble With Wilderness. Or: Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” an environmental historian, William Cronon, wrote, “By teaching us to fetishize sublime places and wide open country, [the] peculiarly American ways of thinking about wilderness encourage us to adopt too high a standard for what counts as ‘natural.’” The essay upset some environmental leaders, who feared the criticisms would undermine public support for conservation efforts. But the critique had already slipped into the intellectual bloodstream. 

A year before Cronon’s essay appeared, Rebecca Solnit (then a relatively unknown essayist and anti-nuclear activist) published Savage Dreams, a devastating deconstruction of the myth of Yosemite. “By and large Yosemite has been preserved as though it were a painting,” Solnit wrote. “Looking is a fine thing to do to pictures, but hardly an adequate way to live in the world.” Around the same time, Pollan (then a relatively unknown journalist) published his first book, Second Nature (1991), a deep meditation on Man and Nature disguised as a book about rose care and lawn maintenance. Pollan argued that the garden, rather than the wilderness, was a more useful metaphor for thinking about our relationship with the more-than-human. The wilderness ethic, Pollan wrote, “may have taught us how to worship nature, but it didn’t tell us how to live with her.” 

For me, the wilderness revisionism was conventional wisdom. Over the years, I put a huge amount of blood, sweat, and tears into building a farm next to a freeway because I had internalized the critiques of the romantic wilderness. I had read my Michael Pollan, I had read my Wendell Berry, and I agreed that the ancient act of (nonchemically intensive) agriculture was as good a way as any to prompt people to recognize our reliance on natural systems. An urban farm could help teach people about how to coexist with our environment. The garden could be a vehicle for getting people to understand that we are “dependent for [our] health and survival on many other forms of life,” as Pollan has written. A sun-warmed strawberry, sprung from the dirt—what a wonderful example of how, in Berry’s words, “we are subordinate and dependent upon a nature we did not create.” 

It worked. At Alemany Farm, we now grow about 22,000 pounds of organic fruits and vegetables annually on a smidgen of land in one of the densest cities in the United States. In the summer the farm is packed with rows of tomatoes, strawberries, cucumbers, and squash. In the winter we grow cabbages, chard, and collards. We have a hillside orchard with some 150 fruit trees, including apples, pears, plums, avocados, mulberries, quince, lemons. A perennial stream flows into a pond ringed with tule reeds, and every spring the pond is busy with flocks of red-winged blackbirds and the occasional mallard duck pair. Kids from the adjacent housing projects like playing in the creek and picking apples right off the tree (and then throwing them at each other). They might not have the same privileges as other San Francisco kids in this dot-com Gilded Age, but they’re the only ones in the city who have herons and egrets wading through a pond in their backyard. Techies come out to the farm during our regular community workdays and have their minds blown by the simple fact that we grow food using horseshit.

And yet. In recent years I have begun to worry that the intellectual corrections regarding the nature of nature have become an over-correction. If, as some argue, all of Earth is now a garden to be tended by civilization, then the garden metaphor has reached the limits of its usefulness—at least as an idea that can blow your mind about what it means to live in harmony with the creation.

It’s time to reconsider whether the garden is the best symbol for forming a right relationship to the rest of nature.



The rethinking (or, if you like, debunking) of the Western ideal of wilderness has been simmering for a while. In the last 20 years or so, “no concept has been more hotly contested within the American environmental community than wilderness,” according to environmental historian Paul Sutter. 

But if the arguments from Cronon, Pollan, and Solnit could be filed under the category of constructive criticism, more recent critiques of wilderness have taken on a sharper, antagonistic edge. “Conservationists will have to jettison their idealized notions of nature, parks, and wilderness,” we are told. “A new conservation should seek to enhance those natural systems that benefit the widest number of people.” That argument comes via a trio of biologists—Peter Kareiva, Michelle Marvier, and Robert Lalasz—who argued in a controversial 2012 essay that “the unmistakable domestication of our planet” means that it’s time to dump what they call “conservation’s intense nostalgia for wilderness and a past of pristine nature.”

Others have been harsher in their assessments. “We must abandon our love affair with the wild . . . for the cold light of the necropsy,” the late political scientist Stephen M. Meyer wrote in his bleak monograph, The End of the Wild (2006). “Ecosystems will organize around a human motif, the wild will give way to the predictable, the common, the usual.” Novelist-naturalist Diane Ackerman took a more upbeat tone in her book The Human Age (2012), yet her cheerfulness seemed to just gloss similarly depressing thoughts. “At this point,” she writes, “we must intervene” in wildlands to try to save species from our own threats. “Nature has become too fragmented to just run wild.” 

One of the most ambitious reevaluations has come from science writer Emma Marris, whose Rambunctious Garden (2011) was one of those books that launched a thousand blog posts. According to Marris, we now live in a “post-wild world.” She wrote: “We are already running the whole Earth, whether we admit it or not. To run it consciously and effectively, we must admit our role and even embrace it. We must temper our romantic notion of untrammeled wilderness and find room next to it for the more nuanced notion of a global, half-wild rambunctious garden, tended by us.” 

Such arguments sparked a heated backlash from other conservationists. For a couple of years, editorials and essays and argumentative rebuttals flew back and forth in scientific journals such as Conservation Biology and Animal Conservation as scientists and environmental advocates debated what’s more important: protecting wild nature for its own sake or for what it can provide to humans, its “ecosystem services.” The squabble swelled into a public schism, with headline writers declaring a “Battle for the Soul of Conservation Science.” The animosity became so intense that, at the end of 2014, a pair of eminent scientists penned an open letter in the journal Nature calling for a détente. 

The internecine feud has been intensified by the arrival of what some are calling “the Anthropocene”: the Age of Man, or, in Ackerman’s phrasing, the Human Age. Nobel Prize–winning chemist Paul Crutzen (the scientist who discovered the hole in the ozone layer) coined the term in 2000 as a way of describing the fact that human civilization is now the greatest evolutionary force on the planet. “It’s we who decide what nature is and what it will be,” Crutzen has written. 

The neologism is on the verge of becoming scientific standard. In August 2016, a working group of the International Geological Congress formally recommended that stratigraphers make the Anthropocene a formal unit of planetary time. The main topic of debate among scientists is not whether we’ve left the Holocene (the epoch in which human civilization was born), but at what point in history to put the “golden spike” that will mark this new period in Earth’s life. 

If we do, in fact, live now in the Human Age, it would make all of Earth into an artifact. Whereas, for all of human history, civilization rested inside of nature, now nature is surrounded by civilization. This new state of affairs would appear to give fresh potency to the garden metaphor as a way of thinking about our relationship to nature. After all, nearly all of the planet is now a landscape tended by us.

Picture the orchards in bloom, the row crops and the flowers, the birds flitting about—what better image could there be for virtuous domestication? In the garden we can envision how to live in a measure of harmony with the rest of nature. If the wilderness is “a place where man himself is a visitor,” in the words of the Wilderness Act, then the garden is the place where we make our home. It’s the middle way between the deep forests of the remote wild and the urban jungle. 

But I think the celebration of the garden has gone too far. The more conscientious critics of wilderness have argued that the wild is essential, but insufficient, for creating an ethic of responsibility toward Earth. It seems that the same could be said of the mindful garden: essential, but insufficient, for cultivating an appreciation of the interests of other living things.

Industrial agriculture

Photo by standret/iStock


Make no mistake: The garden is an unethical place. Even the virtuous garden—which is to say, a garden tended with an eye toward striking some balance with other plants and animals—ultimately disregards other species in favor of human hungers. 

Take Alemany Farm. When we find a gopher eating our potatoes, we set a trap to kill the offender. We target slugs and snails and set out baited snares to capture and kill codling moths. When we spot a weed that may be competing with our crops, we rip it out by the roots, then unceremoniously toss it in the compost pile. It’s all organic, sure; every bit of it is a calculated killing.

Death is a daily part of the business of growing food. As far as I can see, there’s no way around that brutal fact. (Vegans take note: some unlucky field mouse or vole died to get that broccoli to your plate.) But to celebrate routine murder as a paragon of human-nature relations seems a cramped and narrow morality. Extend Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative to other species and the gardener immediately founders. Would you want to get killed for simply trying to feed yourself? No. OK, then, no more gopher traps or moth baits, no more shooting of the wolves and bobcats that prey upon the herd and the flock.  

Without a doubt, it’s a tall moral order to expect that we should extend our ethics to other species. Most people have an impossible time stretching empathy that far, which explains why so few are able to follow philosopher Peter Singer’s airtight logic for animal liberation. At the very least, though, to entertain the idea that other animals (and plants and insects as well) might have interests equal to our own demolishes the idea that the garden is any kind of moral exemplar.

Domestication is design for human convenience. When we tame other living beings, we shape them to fit our own needs. We pick and prioritize the plant varieties that have the highest yield, the most pleasing flavor, the best uniformity for cultivation and harvest. We cut off the testicles of just about every male mammal with which we live in close contact. (Do the gelding and the steer pass your golden rule test?) Every day the gardener makes life and death decisions about which species get to live and which do not, and in the process keeps humanity’s thumb pressed on the scales of evolution. There may be nothing wrong with such domestication. I honestly can’t imagine another way: To live, we must eat the world. 

But we should stop with the self-congratulation and the self-flattery that imagines the garden as a place of balance between the human and the non-human. Because it isn’t. The garden, just like the industrial farm and the open pit mine and the sprawling city, sets human comfort above all else. The garden does not exist to serve other creatures. It is the world molded according to our appetites. 

The eco-groovy-permaculture-tastic garden of the imagination might represent a sort of enlightened self-interest, but it’s self-interest all the same. Even when we make compromises to allow space for other critters, it’s always the other species that make the final sacrifice. Amid all that riot of life, we humans remain the center of the universe.

And that’s problematic, because such thinking, such behavior, is part of the same world view that permits the forest clearcuts and the extinction of other species, the vast monocrops that are antithetical to Earth’s original biodiversity. If we imagine that it’s our privilege—our “duty” even, as some have argued—to cultivate a global garden, we will almost inevitably end up with an environment that is biologically impoverished, if only because some species will prove to be of no use to us, and so we will allow them to perish. Once we recognize that the garden is a place ruled by human utilitarianism, it starts to look less like the instructor of ecological virtues that earnest agrarians promote. The garden isn’t the ideal of human-nature relations. It is, instead, a necessary evil. 

The garden is yet another manifestation of the iron fist of human domination over Earth—just cloaked in a Smith & Hawken glove. 


Photo by sunlow/iStock


If there is any antidote to the idea that Earth is a garden to be tended by a single species, it will be found in the planet’s remaining wild places. To be sure, global wilderness ain’t what it used to be. Whether the bold-faced names like the Sahara and the Amazon, legally designated wilderness areas, or the small-w wildlands such as the roadless areas of America’s national forests, wild places everywhere are compromised by civilization. In 2017, the pristine is an ancient relic.

And still. The wild persists as a place that remains undominated (if not untouched) by humans. A wild land is self-willed and sovereign—the rivers are free, the animals free, the fires free. As such, in wildness resides our last, best chance of discovering an enduring ethics for human-nature relations.

The wild shocks us out of ourselves. “Nature’s silence is its one remark,” Annie Dillard wrote in her essay, “Teaching a Stone to Talk.” Spend some time in the backcountry, deep off road and far from the grid, and one of the first things you’ll notice is the unremitting silence. Nothing much happens in the woods, and what does happen would go on regardless of whether there’s a human witness, much less a human hand to guide. 

The pure disinterest of such quiet is “awful” (Muir’s description, actually), at once infinite and so intimate. The wild’s indifference may be uncomfortable, but as a kind of ethical pedagogy it is essential, especially in this self-proclaimed age of human rule. 

Consider the songbirds. They still call to each other even as emails are piling up. They offer us nothing except the thrill of their song. Which is to say, their own selves. By resisting our entreaties and our flatteries, the songbird asserts its wildness, its sovereignty. In the wilderness, unlike in the garden, other critters are as autonomous as we are. Just as important, they can make a greater claim to ownership. After all, the wild is their home; we’re just visitors passing through. 

Among the most common observations people make when confronted with wild nature is that the landscape makes one feel small. Another way of describing this sensation would be to say that in the wild we are right-sized. The wild puts us in our place, a spot somewhere beneath the pinnacle of all existence. 

Solidarity begins with a recognition of equality. To be confronted by the inhuman of the wild is to remember that we are animals. And when we are reminded of our animal condition, we return to a more equal plane with the other inhabitants of Earth. 

I think it’s unlikely that one will find such lessons in the garden. We won’t cultivate an ecological solidarity in a domesticated landscape, no matter how enlightened it might be. Yes, in the garden we might practice mercy, but it’s always of the noblese oblige variety, a kind of charity at best. 

It’s time, then, to reforge the old faith in wilderness. Here, now, at the edge of the Anthropocene, we need wildness and wilderness more than ever before. We need some spaces free of human intention, places where the herds still freely roam and the rivers are undammed. We need to keep those lands where the minor events are quite major: the alchemy of photosynthesis occurring a billion times over, snowmelt fueling rivers, wind changing the shape of a forest. 

I’ll acknowledge that wild places can’t instruct us in precisely how to live with nonhuman nature in the way the garden does. But wilderness provides something just as important. It gives us the why, and inspires us to make the effort in the first place. 

Portions of this essay are adapted from Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man