The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Gardeners of Eden

Gardeners of EdenI've been slowly digesting Gardeners of Eden, by Dan Dagget, for the last month or so.  Usually, I know what I think of a book right away, but Gardeners of Eden both inspires me and repels me, making it hard to write a review.  As usual, I'll start with the good parts.

Those of you who have studied natural resource management have probably heard about the great divide between preservationists and restorationists.  Preservationists believe that the best thing we can do to any wild area is to leave it alone, preserving it in its natural state.  Restorationists, on the other hand, believe that we should actively work to improve problems in the natural world (perhaps by carrying out prescribed burns, grazing, or timber cuts).  The philosophy of preservationism is found in the management of most National Parks in the U.S., while restorationists hold sway over the National Forests.

Dan Dagget started out as a preservationist (just like I did), and was an environmental activist in groups including EarthFirst! for decades.  However, over time, he started seeing nearby ranchers in the West who were producing healthier ecosystems than were found in neighboring leave-it-alone preserves.  Dagget researched pre-Settlement human impacts on these landscapes and realized that the land had evolved to depend on a partnership with humanity.  Rare onions and mussels and fishes and birds all seemed to expand their numbers in areas with thoughtful human impact, and Dagget concluded we were doing our ecosystems a disservice by acting like aliens intent only on protecting the landscape from our own depredations.

Dan DaggetWhile inspiring from a permaculture perspective (don't we all want to believe we can create forest gardens and pastures that will improve the natural world while feeding us?), I kept finding flaws in Dagget's logic.  For example, Native Americans weren't evenly scattered across the continent, so doesn't it stand to reason that certain areas have evolved to prefer lower human impact than others?  And can you really judge the health of an ecosystem by the population of one endangered species or by the total number of species present?  After all, edges are often lauded for containing more species than either region they divide, but ecological studies show that field/forest edges are net sinks for songbirds since the birds nest in spots with higher-than-usual predator pressure, resulting in the loss of their offspring and often their own lives.  Could some of Dagget's supposedly-topnotch ranches have a similar effect going on?

Overall, I felt like Gardeners of Eden was a thought-provoking book that suffered from a bit too much pseudoscience.  If you're willing to read it with a critical eye --- especially if you live in the American West --- you'll probably get a lot out of the text and beautiful photos.  But I'd hesitate to pass the book on to a less-than-critical reader.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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It seems to me that we're long past the point where we can be true preservationists. We've already interfered so much with every ecosystem that none remain that are truly "natural." BTW- how exactly does one improve on Nature when it comes to an ecosystem? Isn't that oxymoronic?
Comment by doc Fri Aug 30 18:14:01 2013
I have not read the book; but from what you describe, you may find your logical objects minimized if you change your starting point for interpretation. Substituting "created" or "designed" for "evolved" and I find that the human care for nature that permaculture describes becomes more logical, in fact, it becomes an intentional mandate.
Comment by Daniel Sat Aug 31 08:37:20 2013

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