Recently the Op-Ed by Hugh Raffles, Mother Nature’s Melting Pot, in the NYT has ruffled a lot of feathers in the gardening world. As I watched the reaction to it trickle through my social media channels I was really surprised with how negatively the opinion piece was received by gardeners. Some of the criticism of Mr. Raffles seemed to be centered on him not being a “real” scientist or even a gardener. I didn’t see his premise that introduced (exotic?) species have merit to be that off the mark. I think the negative reaction that Mr. Raffles has received is due in large part to him trying to have real talk around something that gardeners, specifically proponents of native plants, are uncomfortable with. He led by comparing native plant supporters to the nativists and the anti-immigration crowd.
THE anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping the country, from draconian laws in Arizona to armed militias along the Mexican border, has taken many Americans by surprise. It shouldn’t — nativism runs deep in the United States. Just ask our non-native animals and plants: they too are commonly labeled as aliens, even though they also provide significant benefits to their new home. While the vanguard of the anti-immigrant crusade is found among the likes of the Minutemen and the Tea Party, the native species movement is led by environmentalists, conservationists and gardeners. Despite cultural and political differences, both are motivated — in Margaret Thatcher’s infamous phrase — by the fear of being swamped by aliens.
The only thing I disagree with here is that he differentiates between the vanguard in groups like the Minutemen and native species movement. Sometimes they are one in the same, and while this may offend the reasonable members of the native species movement; this is a reality that not many are aware of. Back when I was prone to wasting my time arguing about politics on message boards I noticed what Mr. Raffles points out above. Prior to my participating in gardening forums online I was under the impression that everyone involved in gardening or conservation efforts was part of this large group of tree hugging, free loving hippies who just wanted to live and let live. Over the years I’ve come to learn that this is not the case. Like in the rest of America you can find opinions within the gardening world that you do not subscribe to. Gardening and environmentalism isn’t exclusive to Liberals and we have people whose beliefs span the political spectrum and may even offend you. Take this guy for example, how do you go from being a backyard beekeeper who is involved with the Sierra Club, National Audubon Society and other mainstream environmentalist groups to being what many consider the architect of the anti-immigration movement? Like Mr. Raffles writes, “nativism runs deep in the United States.” This isn’t the first time there’s controversy surrounding native plants and it will probably not be the last.
Prior to meeting gardeners like Monica, Linda and Beth my interaction with proponents of native plants was solely online and those interactions always left a bad taste in my mouth. I had no idea that the native plant vanguard held people who could be thoughtful in their discussions and make you see the benefits of native plants without denigrating you and your garden because of your plant choices. I’ve gone from avoiding native plants because I didn’t want to be associated with those kinds of people to someone who now will recommend native plants to others.
It is unfortunate that the native plant movement attracts self-righteous extremists, but it is a reality. A reality that will not go away by pretending like it doesn’t exist or shooting messengers like Mr. Raffles. Last year after attending the Gold Coast garden walk and seeing the gardens of some very wealthy people I was pondering the role of money in gardening. I asked my network of gardeners on Twitter what plant brand said to them that the gardener was “rich.” I answered my own question by saying for me that would be Monrovia. The person who was handling the Twitter account for New York City Wildflower Week posted the following:
This wasn’t what I asked, nor was it what I said. It lead to a days-long Twitter argument between me and the person handling this account where I tried to impress upon him/her why I found this “remix” of what I had said so egregious. It did no good and the person on the other end just stopped responding without apologizing for making it seem like I was slamming Monrovia.
I was helping man a booth by a local gardening organization at last year’s Green Festival Chicago when a man walked up to the booth and said: “I just wanted to thank you for having signs in English. I know you guys are Mexicans, and I appreciate that you’re using English because you’re in America now.” The girl who was sitting at the table with me is Indian.
Nativism runs deep in the United States.
Further Reading: NYT: Mother Nature’s Melting Pot. The Deep Middle: This Guy is An Idiot. Environment 360: Alien Species Reconsidered: Finding Value in Non-Natives. Landscape Journal: Jens Jensen, Native Plants and the Concept of Nordic Superiority.
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