An important horticultural memoir articulating a new landscape art that's both environmentally sensitive and rich in creativity.
Janet Marinelli left her comfortable city garden to join a botanist colleague in search of the rare Seabeach Amaranth--one of our many native species that is in danger of extinction. The result of the ensuing seven-year odyssey, Stalking the Wild Amaranth is a work of science and a work of art. Marinelli tells the story of her discovery that contemporary gardening is out of sync with theories evolving on the frontiers of science and philosophy. She also tells of her quest for a new garden art that nurtures a greater richness and variety of earthly life. Inspired by the legacy of Henry David Thoreau, Marinelli blends history, horticulture, erudition, and personal insight into a narrative that ponders the relationship between humankind and nature. She fleshes out a vision for a new, ecologically wise landscape art, disagreeing ultimately with those who insist that growing native plants is the only way to recover our environmental equilibrium. Gardeners, she writes, should be free to experiment, to let our imaginations run wild, to learn how to be the creators of biodiversity as well as the preservers and restorers.
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About the Author
Janet Marinelli is the director of publishing at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. She is the author of Your Natural Home and The Naturally Elegant Home. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Janet Marinelli is the director of publishing at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. She is the author of Stalking the Wild Amaranth: Gardening in an Age of Extinction, Your Natural Home and The Naturally Elegant Home. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Read an Excerpt
Stalking the Wild Amaranth
Gardening in the Age of Extinction
By Janet Marinelli, Stephen K-M. Tim
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1998 Janet Marinelli
All rights reserved.
I GREW UP on Long Island, on a block called Garden Place. It sounds like a perfect name for a horticultural soap opera. Politically, it could have been scripted by Thomas Jefferson; ecologically, by Stephen King.
Grandma grew tomatoes. Dad mowed the lawn. Every Mother's Day, Mom got another pink azalea or the latest shade of creeping phlox. Today my childhood home looks like just about every other suburban garden between Boston and Seattle, with its golf-course-quality lawn, clipped yews, azaleas, and shade trees ringed by inner tubes of impatiens.
Suburbia has been called the quintessential physical achievement of the United States. "Suburbia symbolizes the fullest, most unadulterated embodiment of contemporary culture," writes Kenneth Jackson in his classic study Crabgrass Frontier. It has become quite trendy, especially among baby-boomer garden writers like me, to poke fun at the suburban landscape. I have a hopelessly love-hate relationship with suburbia: one minute I'm getting all misty-eyed over the gardens of my youth, and the next I'm convinced that they're evil incarnate.
Some writers have made much of the fact that the suburban yard, particularly the lawn, is a throwback, a garden idea ripped off from eighteenth-century England — just another piece of evidence in the argument that as far as landscaping goes, America is in the little leagues compared to the British Isles. In the 1700s, English landscapers threw off the yoke of the French formal garden, with its raised beds of grass shaped in ornate patterns. Inspired partly by paintings that invoked classical images of Arcadia, where humans supposedly lived in harmony with nature, they engineered new, naturalistic landscapes, using lawn to blend the estates of the English gentry into the surrounding countryside, thus creating the illusion that the cultivated flowed seamlessly into the wild.
Capability Brown and the other masters of the English landscape garden pulled off this trick by hiring armies of workers to contour the land into perfectly smooth surfaces on which expansive lawns could be planted. In the process, they destroyed ancient yew hedges, razed gracious old avenues of trees, dismantled houses, and displaced entire villages.
These innovators and their inventions made quite an impression. The English landscape garden formed the vanguard of an intellectual revolution that to this day continues to influence the way we perceive nature and our place in it. It also cemented the lawn as the great status symbol of late-eighteenth-century British society — a status symbol that was promptly transplanted to the New World, where it has proved even more enduring.
Thomas Jefferson was particularly enamored of the English landscape garden. In his journal, Jefferson noted that the lawn of one Brownian landscape, Moor Park, measured "about thirty acres." The British model could be easily adapted to his vision of an American democracy founded upon and made up of citizen farmers, each working his own land. The view from the flowing lawn at Jefferson's home, Monticello, led through a working farm landscape before ending in wild nature. The new pastoral landscape of lawns would link the citizens of a democracy not only to nature and thereby to each other, but also to the rarefied world of higher learning. The original campus of my own alma mater, the University of Virginia, which Jefferson created for the education of the new nation's citizen farmers, was called, tellingly, The Lawn. Here, a string of classically inspired buildings are arranged in the shape of a U around an elegant tiered expanse of turf.
By the mid–nineteenth century, the Americanization of the English landscape garden had passed squarely into the hands of the middle class. The objective was no longer a working farm gussied up with the requisite turf, however, but rather a suburban single-family home surrounded by lawn. "Probably the advantages of civilization can be found illustrated and demonstrated under no other circumstances so completely as in some suburban neighborhoods where each family abode stands fifty or a hundred feet or more apart from all others, and at some distance from the public road," Frederick Law Olmsted wrote at this time. The necklace of lawn encircling each abode, he believed, unified a neighborhood both aesthetically and politically.
So Americans borrowed the lawn from the British — so what? In less than a century, we transformed their aristocratic turf into an ingenious expression of egalitarian ideals, with all those unfenced patches of suburban front lawn uniting us as a democracy and as a people.
Now, that's a nice thought. But the reality is that the popularity of the suburban landscape is owed less to political philosophers such as Jefferson than to nineteenth-century proponents of what today are called "family values," proponents like Catharine Beecher, a kind of Victorian cross between Phyllis Schlafly and Martha Stewart.
Catharine Beecher was born into a family in which, it has been noted, the "missionary fires burned brightly." Among her seven brothers, all of them ministers, was Henry Ward Beecher, the leading Protestant clergyman of the mid–nineteenth century. Catharine's sister Harriet Beecher Stowe was the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the novel that helped start the Civil War. Another sister, Isabella, was one of the foremost feminists of her day.
Catharine never had her own home and family, and reportedly was rarely on friendly terms with her relatives. But that didn't stop her from publishing twenty-five books fleshing out her vision of a healthy, happy, well-fed family living harmoniously in a well-constructed, well-appointed, and well-kept house. Beecher's Treatise on Domestic Economy, For the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School first appeared in 1841 and was reprinted dozens of times over the next thirty years.
Beecher believed that family life could best thrive in a semi-rural, suburban setting. A full five chapters of her Treatise were devoted to the garden, for she considered "healthful outdoor occupation in the family service," as she put it, to be of primary importance. Nothing escaped her notice; she had opinions on everything from the rearing of children to the correct placement of the indoor privy. To Beecher, the universe was divided into the female-dominated sphere of home life (preferably suburban) and the male-dominated (and usually urban) business world. It was up to the ladies, the morally superior but subservient sex, to keep the home pious and pure through proper house and garden design.
Forget those noble ideals of Jeffersonian democracy; don't listen to the analysts who blame suburbia on the automobile. Thanks to Catherine Beecher, the suburban boom in America has gone hand in hand with the baby boom. The same irresistible urge that led Beecher's contemporaries from the Bronx to Bronxville led my parents from Brooklyn to the wilds of Long Island in the 1950s. It continues to cast its spell to this day: virtually all the pregnant women I know — even formerly vociferous urbanites — begin combing the real estate ads for a house in the suburbs before they even go for their first sonogram.
The post–World War II Long Island where I grew up was fertile ground for this century's great twist in the suburban spiral. Long Island was the site of America's first concrete nonstop automobile road, the Vanderbilt Motor Parkway, which ran from the Queens border to Lake Ronkonkoma, a deep ditch scoured out by the last glacier. Built in 1908, the parkway was the forerunner of the modern superhighway. The nation's first supermarket, King Kullen, was established on Long Island in 1930, and its first true subdivision, Levittown, followed inexorably in 1946, when Abraham Levitt and his two sons began acquiring four thousand acres of potato farm smack in the middle of Nassau County. There they built the biggest private housing project in American history, which enabled young couples like my mom and dad, squashed in with their in-laws or crammed into tiny apartments in the city, to afford their own pastoral dreams.
The modest Cape Cod house on a quarter acre of land that my parents purchased some forty-six years ago is not far from Levittown, on the edge of what was once the largest prairie on the East Coast. Called the Hempstead Plain, the treeless area covered about sixty thousand acres. A hard turf of little bluestem grass was tinged purple in early spring when the bird's-foot violet bloomed. Clumps of wild indigo and dwarf willow stood out as knoblike projections on these plains. An early settler wrote that "cattle lying down in the grass were lost to sight" and warned that a "man might miss his way in the tall grass."
This wild landscape has been transformed into a sprawling mosaic of utterly feminine domestic landscapes, in which each plant is treasured like some precocious toddler or cranky elder member of the family. The June rose that once climbed up the side of my parents' garage, delighting us with its bright-red blooms, is gone now, as are all of the original builder's bushes, except for one tenacious old arborvitae. Now about thirty feet tall, it has housed generations of cardinals' nests. All of the greenery on either side of the arborvitae came from one small cutting that Grandma took from a euonymus bush in Aunt Lucy's and Uncle Tommy's yard in nearby Seaford. Today, the euonymus completely obscures the back fence.
Our vegetable garden once occupied the back half of the property. This was Grandma's domain, where she'd be found most every day from spring to fall. The vegetable garden has shrunk to a small patch behind the garage since Grandma died, in 1973. Fig trees are lined up behind the garage, too. We call them Memorial Row. They came from cuttings from both grandmas and from Uncle Nick — all three of them gone now. My mom and dad harvest a bumper crop of figs into late September, then wrap the trees up snug for the winter.
The huge maple tree that my brother, George, and I climbed as kids was struck by lightning one year. The lightning ricocheted off the tree and singed the fringe on our hammock. The tree did not survive, but an oak tree sprouted on almost the same spot, thanks to a squirrel who planted an acorn there. George is gone now, too, but the azalea bushes he gave Mom every Mother's Day still light up the front of the house in DayGlo pinks and reds — as colorful as his personality — each year in May.
One of the most captivating plants in my childhood garden is a peegee hydrangea, which we call the sheepshead, after the shape of its showy, large, long-lasting inflorescences, which open white and become pinkish before turning bronze as winter approaches. Dried sheepsheads gathered from it have decorated the homes of friends and relatives for decades, but the most memorable thing about this venerable bush is the way its gnarled old branches have become twisted and intertwined, giving rise each year to slender new stems that droop from the weight of a new crop of flowers. Kind of like the branches of a family tree.
* * *
IT'S HARD TO fall in love with a grass plant, especially when its identity has been subsumed in a lawn, that horticultural equivalent of a Stalinist collective. So why is it grass that has become the official symbol of suburbia, the heart of the American view of the ideal life? Not the kitchen garden, as in Italy. Not the flower border, as in England. Turfgrass. Go figure.
My husband, Don, rolls his eyes toward the heavens whenever I wax eloquent about how perfect Juncus effusus 'Spiralis', a form of the common soft rush with a severely twisted attitude, would be in the wetland border at our Shelter Island summer house. But when we pull up the driveway, the car can barely sputter to a halt before he's off and running to the shed for the rickety reel mower we use to trim the patch of lawn behind the porch (don't tell Don, but it's mostly moss, barren strawberry, and plantain). Mowing the lawn is Don's idea of gardening. After years of meticulous observation, I've concluded that mowing is a guy thing. American men gravitate to turfgrass like slugs to stale beer.
I think it has something to do with all the gizmos: even in the early days, lawn care involved an arsenal of tools. Those Capability Brown landscapes with sheep grazing peacefully on princely greenswards thrived only if they were scythed, brushed, swept, and rolled around the clock to smooth out any imperfections. Englishman Edwin Budding's invention of the lawn mower in 1830 brought lawn within reach of the common man. Today edgers, spreaders, aerators, rollers, weed whackers, mowers from reel to rotary to four-wheel-drive rider models, dusters and sprayers, precision seeders, leaf blowers, hoses, sprinklers, and other irrigation devices, not to mention grass seed specially designed for sun, shade, or both, fertilizers in various formulations, insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides, are among the paraphernalia found in the average suburban garage.
I've watched otherwise perfectly lovable, rational men like my dad go to insane lengths to minister to their lawns. One sweltering summer day about thirty years ago, my father, fed up with our browned-out, mangy-looking lawn, got out the sprayer and painted it green — not typical suburban behavior, to be sure, but not entirely out of line, either, with other steps we routinely take in our gardens, especially on our lawns, to get nature to do what it does not want to do.
According to the National Gardening Association, fifty-eight million homeowners around the country rev up their mowers week after week, each spending some forty hours a year to keep the turfgrass gulag under control. Lawn order is preserved by thwarting the grass's sex drive. Instead of treating the grass like a normal plant and encouraging flowers, fruit, and seeds to be set, the typical suburbanite performs weekly castrations. Between mowings, he (and to press the point, it is almost invariably a he) waters the lawn like crazy and, several liberally applied times a season, force-feeds it with chemical fertilizers, trying to stimulate the same poor plants to grow, grow, grow.
Our landscaping problems go way beyond this curious routine of horticultural S and M, however. In a natural ecosystem, the sun provides all the energy needed by the resident plants and animals, and drives the water and nutrient cycles that keep them alive. A natural prairie, say, does not require outside intervention because all the native organisms are adapted to the site's conditions. They make do with whatever water comes from natural precipitation and with whatever nutrients are kept constantly cycling between the living and nonliving members of the biological community. In other words, a prairie is solar-powered and fertilizes itself.
Compare this with what goes on in that human-modified grassland ecosystem, the lawn. To achieve the requisite perfectly manicured look, lawn clippings are often removed and carted off to the nearest landfill. Fertilizers are then applied to replace the lost nutrients. Fertilizer production is entirely dependent on fossil fuels, particularly natural gas, stored underground for millions of years since the dinosaur era, often half a world away. Gasoline derived from crude oil fuels most power mowers.
In many areas, the lawn is irrigated with fossil water deposited in underground aquifers thousands of years ago by glaciers. Over the past forty years, for example, about thirteen hundred trillion gallons have been withdrawn from the Ogallala Aquifer, which stretches from South Dakota to northern Texas. Because this is far more water than is being replaced by natural processes, water tables in these areas are plummeting. In regions that depend on surface water for irrigation, the streamflow in many river basins is decreasing. The National Xeriscape Council, which promotes water-conserving landscaping, estimates that up to 30 percent of urban water on the East Coast is used for lawn irrigation, and up to 60 percent in the arid West.
Excerpted from Stalking the Wild Amaranth by Janet Marinelli, Stephen K-M. Tim. Copyright © 1998 Janet Marinelli. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
INTRODUCTION: STALKING THE WILD AMARANTH,
ALIENS, CLONES, AND THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES,
GARDENS THAT ACT LIKE NATURE,
GARDENS WITHIN THE GARDEN,
The Garden Room,
The Indoor Garden,
The Wild Garden,
The Front Garden,
The Kitchen Garden,
The Soil Garden,
The Water Garden,
THE MACHINE IN THE GARDEN,
THE GARDEN OF ASHES,
ALSO BY JANET MARINELLI,