Wisdom of the Wild Ones

In today’s blog, Laura M. Hartman introduces the Wild Ones, an ecological restoration organisation whose views and actions are explored in her new co-authored paper in Environmental Values (with Kathleen Wooley) and muses on her affection for the group, even while she recognises its openness to philosophical critique. 


‘We can all lend a hand in Nature’s plan

We can change the world if we try

With the choices we face, with the seeds we place

We’ll change it one yard at a time.’ – Steve Hazell, ‘For the Wild Ones.’

While teaching environmental humanities at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, I became entranced by a local group known as the Wild Ones. This charming organisation – composed mostly of retirees with green thumbs and strong environmental consciences – promotes the use of native plants in landscaping. There is a national organisation, headquartered in Neenah (very close to Oshkosh), and there are local chapters (ours was called the Fox Valley Area chapter).

Picture 2
Wild Ones national headquarters, the WILD Center, in Neenah, WI. Photo by Donna VanBuecken, courtesy of Wild Ones Facebook page.

As a scholar of environmental ethics, I was deeply supportive of the organisation’s mission, but at the same time I found myself quietly questioning its moral framework for its work. The article I wrote with Kate Wooley, ‘The Good, the Wild, and the Native’, is an attempt to shine a light on my discomfort and to use the tools of ethics to analyse the topic of native landscaping.

Native landscaping has much in common with ecological restoration. The Wild Ones members cite inspiration from figures such as Aldo Leopold (a pioneer of ecological restoration), Doug Tallamy(author of Bringing Nature Home), and Lorrie Otto(a Wisconsin-based activist instrumental in the fight against DDT, who founded the Wild Ones organization in the 1970s). Ecological restoration, and Wild Ones’ native landscaping both aim to eliminate invasive species and re-create a preferred landscape with plants (and other organisms) deemed ‘native’. The model relies on an ‘ecological imaginary’ characterised by an Edenic narrative, in which pristine nature was ruined by ‘us’ (perhaps this is settler colonialism, industrial civilisation, urban sprawl, or another stand-in for human degradation of natural ecosystems). Restorationists and native landscapers are modest, diligent heroes, going against the landscaping norm to bring back what should never have been destroyed in the first place.

It doesn’t take much effort for a scholarly mind to deconstruct this narrative: it relies on a ‘pristine myth’ of an untouched pre-Columbian nature. It ignores the presence of (and wisdom of) native people in North America. It relies on a clear human/nature split, which we know to be false. It wrongly values the ‘natural’ over the ‘human’ when those categories are far from clear-cut. It unwittingly (or purposely?) perpetuates the xenophobia underlying much ‘native plant’ discourse. The definition of ‘native’ in plants is very slippery, as is ‘invasive’: these concepts are so elusive they’re barely workable. It only offers environmental redemption to those who own land. It falsely claims that humans can repair and replace a natural ecosystem, when in fact we can’t – and this overblown vision of human capacity to repair the world undermines the imperative to preserve natural areas. I’m sure readers can think of still more philosophical critiques of the whole idea of native landscaping and ecological restoration.

Picture 3
Asclepias tuberosa, butterfly weed. Photo Courtesy Fox Valley Area Wild Ones Chapter, Facebook page.

And yet – I love the Wild Ones. I love their earnest effort: these people work hard, bringing about a painstaking transformation in the landscapes they are devoted to. I love their delight in the less-appreciated wilder plants. I love their wide hospitality, seeking to feed birds and insects rather than themselves. I love their empowering view of human agency: in the face of overwhelming environmental problems, they are transforming the world ‘one yard at a time’. I even love their heroic righteousness, rescuing plants from bulldozers and defending fledgling prairies from invasive intruders. Underneath it all, the Wild Ones members show that humans are not only evil; we can do good in this place. Although I recognise the strength of the philosophical critiques, I don’t want the hair-splitting philosophers to undermine the genuine value of the Wild Ones members’ efforts to heal and restore the places that humans have harmed.

Picture 1
Founder of the Wild Ones, Lorrie Otto (1919-2010). Photo courtesy of Wild Ones Facebook page.

In this article, Wooley and I use interviews with several Wild Ones members to illuminate the positive aspects of this organisation and its ethos. We entertain several scholarly critiques of the organisation, and answer most of them with practical wisdom from the interviews, while acknowledging that there is room for the Wild Ones to grow in their own self-reflection (particularly in their use of native plants while basically ignoring native people). In the end, we offer lessons from the Wild Ones members to the philosophers who might deconstruct their efforts – insights about delight, compromise, and functional pragmatism.

At its core, this article is about models of human agency: are we destroyers, creators, stewards, dominators, or partners? We hope this essay inspires readers to find their own ways to lend a hand in nature’s plans, cognisant of critiques and contradictions, yet pragmatic enough to truly make a difference in the world.

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