A friend once asked, ‘why do botanists have such terrible gardens?’
The question might have triggered a long discussion, had we not just left my house. I changed the subject instead. Years later, I think I’ve worked out a credible response. It’s partly about scale. The scales at which people see gardens and ecosystems.
Take grasslands for example. Close your eyes and picture a native grassland. Stop reading. Close your eyes and picture an iconic native grassland. What do you see?
Did you imagine a panorama of treeless plains and rolling hills, as in Eugene von Guérard’s painting of Bushy Park above? Or a reserve or small remnant, with edges, signage, tracks and interior? Or perhaps a close-up of flowers, grasses, stones and small animals? At which scale did the grassland pop into your head: the landscape scale, the patch (or reserve) scale or the plant scale?
Ecologists study grasslands at all scales, but we don’t focus on all scales when we spruik grasslands to the public. It’s easy to investigate how botanists do sell grasslands to the public; by examining the photographs in field guides, articles and extension booklets. A picture is worth a thousand words, so the number of photographs at each scale must indicate the importance of each scale to the authors, yes?
I stacked up all my books and pamphlets about native grasslands in south-east Australia, got myself a coffee, and spent a leisurely hour gazing at beautiful pictures.
My first impression is that there is a big difference between what authors say in words and what they show in pictures. All the books say that native grasslands are rare, threatened and restricted to small remnants, especially in near-urban areas. But the pictures tell a different story.
It’s customary to start big, at the landscape scale, with breathtaking photographs or historical paintings. Detailed maps complete the landscape vision, showing precisely where the grasslands do (or did) occur. From the landscape scale, the photos in most of our grassland books skip past the patch scale and dive to the plant scale; to colorful orchids, daisies, lilies and peas, the angular seed heads of native grasses. Many of these plants were photographed in small remnants, but the remnants themselves are usually obscured, hidden by low camera angles.
My grassland books showcase a landscape without remnants (the historical vision) and wondrous plants in remnants, but rarely show the remnants themselves. The photographic evidence suggests that grassland aficionados don’t see reserves, patches or remnants as being particularly attractive, inviting or important.
Take Plains Wandering for example; a book I co-wrote, so can offend only my co-authors in critiquing it. We begin at the landscape scale, with historical paintings, sketches and maps. We stay at that scale with dozens of photos of beautiful grasslands and woodlands; all sweeping views or fields of colorful wildflowers. We then dive from the landscape scale to the small scale, with close-ups of iconic plants and animals. The core of the field guide follows, with photos of hundreds of plant species.
The text highlights the precarious existence of grasslands in small fragmented remnants, but there are no photos of reserves, remnants or patches in the book. Only one picture – of an endangered daisy along a rail-line – tangentially shows a small linear remnant. [Interestingly, people are scarce too. Only two photos show people: one drawn in the 1850s of Aborigines around a camp fire and one of a farmer burning a pasture. Both seem to belong there.]
In selecting our photos, we purposefully magnify the landscape and the plant scale, and unintentionally obscure the reality of an endangered ecosystem. The reality of remnants, patches, edges, fences, borders and neighbors.
In retrospect, I wonder – where is the point of recognition, of contact or engagement, between this idealized ecological view, and the view of a homeowner with a patch of long grass behind the fence? For the uninitiated, the point of contact with an isolated remnant is the patch, not the landscape or plant scale. The scale we ignored.
I guess this is why my friend thinks botanists have such terrible gardens. Like smokers, we shun the packaging and see only the goodies within. How do we sell our vision to a public who see only the unadorned plain packaging?
Framing the patch
Nearly 20 years ago, Joan Nassauer, a professor of landscape architecture in the USA, wrote a short, highly readable paper called Messy Ecosystems, Orderly Frames. This influential article was studied by landscape design students but was rarely read by ecologists. Nassauer made the following points.
In urban areas, remnant vegetation will be accepted by the public if it looks attractive. Aesthetic values are influenced by culture, and don’t always correspond with ecological values. Many ‘attractive’ places have little ecological value, and many places of high ecological value are unattractive by conventional standards. Nothing surprising there.
We can give our remnants a make-over in either of two ways; we can argue for the beauty within or air-brush the beauty without. Ecologists usually rely on the first approach and plead, ‘it may look a bit tatty but it’s really really rare and important, so please look after it’. Nassauer promotes the second approach; let’s gift-wrap our remnants in an attractive package. Her argument is that the packaging – more than the contents – signifies that the patch belongs in, and is valued by, our society. Orderly frames make ‘messy ecosystems’ socially acceptable.
We all know that packaging is important. Cigarettes are one of the most addictive drugs on the planet; so addictive that their makers shouldn’t give a toss what’s on the box. Yet cigarette companies fight tooth and nail to stop legislation for plain packaging. If packaging can promote the sale of addictive drugs, we can use it to promote things that most people are not addicted to, or even attracted to. Like remnant vegetation.
The world of art epitomizes the importance of framing. Framing tells us which artworks are most important. Not just the literal wooden frame, but the fact that an artwork is bought and sold at an auction house, hung and labelled in a gallery, interpreted by a program, guarded by a security system. Take away that social frame and it’s just another picture, of unknown value.
Joan Nassauer argued that the best frames are those that reveal human intention, and signify that a patch is being cared for. She used the term ‘cues to care’ to refer to design features that show that patches are valued by people. Cues to care include the quality of fencing, whether edges are mown and maintained, the presence of paths, seats and other signs of human intent. Most people view remnants from a distant road, house or footpath, so many cues to care are on the edges. Remnants – or more importantly, the cultural frames around remnants – have to look good from the outside in.
This stuff is old hat for green planners. But many remnants are cared for by people with backgrounds in ecology, not design, and ecologists traditionally argue (and demonstrate by our dress-sense) that knowledge beats presentation. In reality, we need both.
Framing the future
If framing is so important, then why are photos of well-presented patches (or any patches for that matter) so rare in my grassland books? Why did we ecologists focus on landscape and plant scales, and avoid the framed patch, the packaged remnant?
In defence of the books on my desk, there weren’t many reserves when the first books were written. Most patches had a tenuous future, sagging fences, and the most common form of ‘interpretation’ in Victoria was a small yellow sign asking tractor drivers to keep off the grass. It’s no surprise that we avoided the edges and snapped plants and landscapes instead. There were too few ‘cues to care’ to poke a lens at.
We can’t use that excuse any more. In recent decades, grassland conservationists have made many fantastic wins (and suffered many losses). We have fewer remnants now, but more patches are managed for conservation than ever before. The best remnants provide stellar examples for a new generation of grassland guides, the first of which is about to hit the shelves.
Start with the Grasslands
Start with the Grasslands: Design Guidelines to Support Native Grasslands in Urban Areas is a wonderful book written by Adrian Marshall and published by the Victorian National Parks Association. The VNPA are seeking feedback on the draft, so please download it (for free) and enjoy it.
In my view Start with the Grasslands is the most innovative and ground-breaking book on urban grassland conservation ever produced in Australia. Most of the content is relevant to any fragmented ecosystem, so if you live near a remnant forest, salt-marsh or heathland, check it out. If you work in conservation planning, you’ll enjoy it and learn something new, no matter where you live.
In 96 colorful pages, Adrian Marshall describes lots of ways to conserve and improve grasslands in urban areas, and to maximize the environmental and social benefits that remnants provide. With over 100 color pictures, the book showcases many examples of great conservation design.
The book is structured around seven principles: (1) start with the grasslands (from the earliest stage of planning), (2) collaborate, (3) integrate, protect, connect, (4) design for maintenance, (5) communicate, (6) let people in, and (7) provide cues to care.
Adrian gives a pithy summary of cues to care – ‘The more visible the grassland edge, the more visibly it should be cared for’ – and emphasizes the importance of framing and good communication:
The tone of communication is important…. grasslands tend to be surrounded by fences and signs that say, in effect, keep out. To avoid this negative message, signage should include explanatory text about the importance of grasslands, and some effort should be made to reduce the visible presence of fencing and to allow some controlled access to grasslands, especially into non-core areas or areas of lower conservation value. (Marshall 2013, p. 19)
Start with the Grasslands reverses the unwritten code of earlier grassland books. It focuses directly on the points of contact between people and ecosystems: on edges, patches, paths and planning. In doing so, it demonstrates how good design can improve nature conservation and human interactions with nature. If you want valuable information on design and planning, or just want to spend a leisurely hour gazing at beautiful pictures, it’s a fantastic publication.
And if you do have a terrible garden, you’ll see how to improve it. Focus on the packaging, not just the goodies within.
Many thanks to Adrian Marshall, Dave Kendal and Tim Barlow for feedback which improved the blog, and to James Newman for allowing me to use his beautiful photo of the Aurora grassland.
Marshall, A. (2013). Start with the grasslands: design guidelines to support native grasslands in urban areas. Final draft. Victorian National Parks Association, Melbourne. [The free book can be downloaded from this link].
Nassauer, J.I. (1995). Messy ecosystems, orderly frames. Landscape Journal 1, 161-170. [The full paper can be downloaded from this link].