Operating Without Human Intervention
July 10, 2019 11:25 AM   Subscribe

Back To The Land: How “re-wilding” can help turn the tide of climate change (The Nib) A 4.5-million-hectare national park in Chile is being brought back to life by restoring the land to nature. (Al Jazeera) Rewilding complex ecosystems (Science, Harvard summary) Ditch the lawn and rewild your garden (Guardian) Lessons from my neighbor’s rewilded lawn (medium) How can cities rewild? The Depavement movement. Rewilding, previously.
posted by The Whelk (35 comments total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
Visiting China recently, I'm watching from the air as we come into Beijing. There was a ubiquitous feature on the ground that I could see all over the place, but didn't know what it was. Exploring the city and surrounds, turns out these were urban planting operations. Around Beijing at least, China is actively planting tree saplings pretty much everywhere one could possibly go.
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:11 PM on July 10, 2019 [6 favorites]

Rewilding is fine, as long as it's nowhere near my house, or anywhere I would need to walk. We have enough problems with ticks, mosquitoes, poison ivy/oak/sumac, deer eating our gardens, etc.
posted by Citrus at 12:18 PM on July 10, 2019

I ended up drilling down from one of those links to a program in Los Angeles that provides cash and resources for lawn replacement, I'm going to see if my landlord would be willing to do the paperwork if I do the legwork.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:24 PM on July 10, 2019 [6 favorites]

Here in my SoCal neck of the woods, the lawn replacement programs only pay for 1/2 of the drought-tolerant plants purchased to replace the lawn. So, while I was going to do it anyways, our out of pocket expenses were still significant. Tearing up sod is terrible even with renting a sod cutter, having some landscape fabric to stem the stray bits of lawn from coming back is pricey, the back-breaking toil of working with clay soil fuels the ibuprofen industry. But we wouldn't change it for a thing. Our coast live oak is 25' high! Our Matilija Poppies are glorious! The coastal sage smells amazing. It's really rewarding after so many years of drought to watch the yard blossom. We've got rabbits and squirrels who visit and so many birds that the ground seems to move in the mornings.

And a plus is that the neighbors seem to love it and enjoy commenting on the transition that our house has undergone- from river stone (completely covered in stone - ugh!) - to lawn (make the rental property look good) - and now to near-native wild lands.
posted by mrzz at 12:43 PM on July 10, 2019 [24 favorites]

Great post!

This is the design for an area I go through a couple of times a week. IMO, they've gone a bit over the top, the diversity is overwhelming and more than a bit symbolic. But it works! It works in the basic way it's made to work, to provide natural drainage and biodiversity, attracting insects and birds. It also works by attracting human activities, both informal and commercial, to an area that was almost fantastically boring, like a Roy Anderson film, which means that property prices are rising, so conservative local homeowners embrace the change. Normally I'd call this gentrification and not like it, but this particular area wasn't poor, it was sad. These are middle class people who have realized that a green deal can be fun and profitable. And while I find it too much, it also makes me laugh, which is rare for an urban landscape.
I couldn't find up to date pictures, probably because it isn't entirely finished yet.
posted by mumimor at 1:01 PM on July 10, 2019 [4 favorites]

2 years ago we were renting a place where the previous owners had spent a lot of time making a nice perennial garden with a variety of different plants. There were so many insects and birds there it was shocking (in a good way), especially as our own house that was maybe a block away didn't get anywhere near as many. Now that we're back to our own house it is informing what we want to do with our own lawn and garden although we haven't done anything yet.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 1:09 PM on July 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

My husband works for a nature center that about doubled in size when the community snatched an adjoining golf course from the hands of real estate developers and donated it to the nature center. It's right on the outskirts of downtown, and you can track the progress in this hashtag.

it is M A G I C A L
posted by rebent at 2:02 PM on July 10, 2019 [10 favorites]

Thanks so much for these articles! The term “re-wilding” never occurred to me, but that has been my major yard project this year. We lost a huge, majestic ash tree to the emerald ash borer in March, and all of a sudden I had 1500 square feet of big sunlight change in my yard to deal with. Previously it was a jungle of ostrich ferns under the tree canopy, a frustrating patch of creeping charlie on the north side of the tree, some grass that burned to a crisp by July, and a ridiculous number of volunteer pumpkin vines planted by squirrels. I dug up all the ferns, hired someone with heavy equipment to regrade the yard (to keep my basement from flooding), built a raised bed along the fence for a perennial asparagus patch, planted two new trees, and decided to re-seed the remaining space with a low/no-mow grass seed mix near our patio and a prairie meadow seed mix for the rest.

Reader, I have very little idea what is sprouting in my backyard. The place I ordered my seed from (Prairie Moon Nursery in Winona, MN) assures me that as long as I weed whack the weeds to a height of 4 inches the first year, next year the native species will have established enough deep root structure to overpower the weeds, and I will have a real native plant meadow. Right now it looks like an abandoned baseball field - there are so many weeds! My neighbors and I are so curious if this experiment is going to work (I get so many comments from people walking their dogs), but this waiting year is SO HARD. It looks ridiculous out there.

The Minnesota legislature passed a law this year that partially reimburses homeowners who convert their lawns to “bee friendly habitats,” but there are no details yet on how to apply. I turned most of my front yard into a perennial garden/orchard/vegetable garden, so I’m not sure if I can convince my husband to turn the remaining grass into something more than the clover/dandelion/grass mixture that it already is. He’s not ready for a 100% wild Minneapolis yard, but eventually I hope to be able to give away our lawnmower.
posted by Maarika at 2:28 PM on July 10, 2019 [8 favorites]

Although I didn't think of it as such, I suppose my recent decision to not mow the small clover patch that's taken hold in the back of my lawn, near my kid's playhouse, is a very small bit of rewilding. The bees love the clover flowers and, hopefully, this will also mean more bees in my garden pollinating the various plants that don't self-pollinate.
posted by asnider at 2:39 PM on July 10, 2019

asnider, if you wanted to encourage the clover you could spread some additional seeds in the fall and spring.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 2:43 PM on July 10, 2019

Thank you i love this.

I was in a eco-radical discord a year or two ago. My time there was really brief, namely because I strongly opposed everyone's take on the "idyllic" world where we all lived in rural areas and took bikes to the farmers market. The idea that farmland wasn't eco-friendly was heresy to them, even after explaining that wildlife isn't welcome on farmland, crops weren't native plants, and contain pesticides, even if they're organic ones.

My idyllic world would be to develop technology to have green cities that are most self-sustaining, and leaving the rest of the world as wild and untouched, with some area left for national parks and such. I did the math once, and if the cities were roughly the same size and population as houston, it'd only take up about 9% of the world's habitable land space, leaving the other %91 untouched, as well as the "uninhabitable" land for wild areas.
posted by FirstMateKate at 4:15 PM on July 10, 2019 [6 favorites]

I used to live in almost-urban-suburban MD, renting a house next to a tiny little lot that had been left undeveloped for some time and had overgrown. It was amazing and horrible in equal amounts. The fireflies were amazing the year after the cicadas hatched. We had racoons, foxes, even a flying squirrel. We also were infested with millipedes and house centipedes and cute little abandoned baby mice that couldn't be nursed to adulthood. I had awesome sage, catnip, and chives, but weird ferns that encircled the entire house, and those shallow-rooted tall weeds that you had to pull out with gloves and sometimes they stuck you through those.

To me, it was a mix of Type I and II fun, but I understand those who would like to leave the interfacing of civilization and wilderness to professionals. I also think hearing coyotes howl at sunset is very cool, probably much more so than those who keep horses or cattle.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 4:42 PM on July 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

I know bees love lemon cucumber flowers like nobody's business. If you want them attracted to your garden grow a couple. I have been thinking about seeding out these wild cherry plums I used to live under, that was developed at the site of an old springs. I have been hoping to make it over to my old place in August to pick buckets of the typically uneaten by humans, plums to plant along bird migration routes, river banks, bird refuge areas. The gold finches came to specifically eat the gold plums that were among the others. Would be a great, lazy drive across the west.
posted by Oyéah at 4:47 PM on July 10, 2019

Related: AOC yesterday.
posted by doctornemo at 5:06 PM on July 10, 2019

There are some other "previously"s as well, example; another. It's an interesting concept, and there is a reason it keeps showing up in FPPs here.

I mostly see the term "rewilding" used by European authors; the term has much less relevance in the US and Canada where terms like "restoration" are used instead. There can be a real tone-deafness to how people talk about it, too, eliding how humans (eg, indigenous peoples prior to European settlement in the Americas) have been part of these landscapes since time immemorial (ie, since creation, or since the retreat of the last ice age, depending on your perspective).

The place I ordered my seed from (Prairie Moon Nursery in Winona, MN) assures me that as long as I weed whack the weeds to a height of 4 inches the first year, next year the native species will have established enough deep root structure to overpower the weeds, and I will have a real native plant meadow.

That seems highly optimistic, but hopefully it works and you get a beautiful meadow. I'd make some contingency plans for manual and/or chemical weed control, though, just in case.

Just about anything has more ecosystem benefits than a lawn, so people removing sod and replacing it with native plants or gardens seems like a clear net benefit. The complicated trade-offs come when you are considering things like flood control vs ecosystem processes, or taking land into or out of agricultural production. Everyone is in favor of ecological benefits right up until there is a personal cost, and then they aren't so interested.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:11 PM on July 10, 2019 [6 favorites]

We can start with golf courses.
posted by mhoye at 6:16 PM on July 10, 2019 [15 favorites]

I live in an area where aggressive, invasive species abound. Unless I spend substantial time weeding, Japanese knotweed will quickly overtake indigenous species. Knotweed, wild grapevines, and large spiky things that I swear have teeth would make the yard impossible to walk through let alone relax in. Plus our area currently has record numbers of disease-carrying ticks, which are chiefly found in underbrush but less so in open lawns.

sighs, resumes mowing
posted by kinnakeet at 7:01 PM on July 10, 2019 [4 favorites]

Ugh, knotweed is so persistent, also that multiflora rose. I mow my lawn because there are plenty of trees; some of them are not great too near the house because the pines have shallow roots and can fall over. Also, I have a small garden that needs some sun. The Guardian article blithely recommends a pond - the mosquitoes are really bad this year, the blackflies were vicious, so get some advice before you change certain ecosystems.

I live across the road from a lake. We have had blooms of cyanobacteria that are troubling, and they are fed by fertilizer from lawns, dirt (phosphorus) from tilling lawns and erosion, and septic systems because the lake is nice, all the summer cabins are converted to year-round homes, lots of new homes. Septic systems deal with bacteria, but the nutrients in human waste end up downstream in the lake. My town is stubborn about resisting a water treatment plant and will not limit development.

I planted blueberries to avoid mowing one area; critters and I like them, bees like the flowers. Bees like the vinca, non-native but good at erosion control and needs little maintenance. I have tons of plantain this year, considering using it as a border in some areas. Red clover has gotten established and I had a nice stand of yarrow. My yard looks shaggy and patchy and I'm fine with that. Genuine re-wilding would be forest.
posted by theora55 at 10:44 PM on July 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

Totally agree with Dip Flash above. Native peoples are usually invisible in these interventions .. yet most all land was managed, even though colonizers chose to not see, this was true in North America, Australia, and beyond. Wherever anglo culture goes we homogenize everything refusing to Become Native to this Place, believing we can throw things 'away, rejecting our naturalness as humans - in reality we need to rewild ourselves (shameless self link) as part of rewilding Earth.

Anyway, by the time a site becomes available for 'rewilding' it needs a fair bit of 'steering' so it doesn't become a self-perpetuating weed-resource, either by fire - gorse and broom will do this happily for centuries or by a self-created monoculture like kudzu. These are unguided rewildings, allowing nature to take it's course will not be in our best interest as if guided we can sequester more carbon and learn to become part of our places.

I'm currently working on a project of about 6Ha, terribly steep, eroded and with a triculture of gorse (Ulex europaeus), broom (Cytisus), both of those are legumes and elder (Sambucus nigra). We're trying a number of methods to keep costs down and likelihood of success* up

Left to itself I'd expect it'd take three centuries to return to a native state. We're trying to accelerate that. Some things we're looking at:

- Depleting soil Cobalt and Molybdenum to disrupt weed legume cycles.
- Sowing a monoculture of a native Malvaceace which we can overspray a chemical called turbuthylazine, following by sparse planting of long-lived hardwoods.
- The use of living mulches and using hundreds of sheep to tread the seed in, followed by very sparse planting of certain plants.

* Success here is canopy closure within a decade with a desirable self-seeding plant mix and breaking the weed tripartite cycle.

When people dreamily say return the land to what it was I ask Restore to what? For what? To what time in history?. Going back is non-trivial we've changed all these things at least:

delta soil Phosphorous, Nitrogen and Carbon <>

isotopic forms of Nitrogen leading to short-lived tissues in what would normally be very durable plant matter = faster Carbon release

losses of:
frugivores - seed spreaders

acid rain
eCO2 and
highly invasive weeds
the edge effect of climate into native forest - circa 900 lineal metres
posted by unearthed at 1:06 AM on July 11, 2019 [14 favorites]

That is a very interesting comment, unearthed, and I like your work.

And yes, "managed change" would probably be more accurate than "re-wilding", and you need guidance to do it. But it is also a political issue where those who want change to happen need to inspire the imaginations of people.
I live in a country where there is absolutely not one square inch of unmanaged land, and it's been like that since the Middle Ages at least, maybe since the Bronze Age. Through the last decade this has become more known to the general public, and more people are understanding that we have a responsibility to restore and maintain biodiversity and the wide range of biotopes that are needed for that.
Just yesterday I heard a farmer taking on the radio: she was being asked to "re-wild" her low-lying fields, for a number of reasons. Obviously, she knows that what she needs to do is another form of management, not literally letting go of land management altogether, but she also knows this is a useful shorthand for communicating her intent to city-dwellers. (She was all for it).
Another aspect is engaging city-dwellers and suburbanites in helping sustain biodiversity. Some researchers here have started a popular movement (in Danish, the name is "Wild on Purpose") dedicated to engage municipalities, companies and private citizens in "wild" gardening in order to help insect recovery. In some ways, it's easier to provide insect habitats in urban/suburban settings than in agricultural landscapes because there is no profit lost by letting a strip of grass in the middle of a boulevard or in a private garden flower. I can see with the naked eye that far more people are following their advice than is listed on the website, when I walk my dog, and it's encouraging that there seem to be more insects this year than last year. (I'm a citizen researcher on another project, where I count a number of selected species on an app).
EU is working hard on biodiversity, and like it says in one of the link, there are a number of flagship projects around Europe. But smaller landowners and state forests can get EU funding for "re-wilding" existing forests, and again, these are professionals who know it is a change in management, not a halt to management. Even though some of the projects I know are only a few years old, there is already a real positive change. It's such a comfort to know that you can do things, that action makes sense.
Finally, I think I've mentioned this before, but here it is again: it's interesting to me that the national park our family farm is next to is being preserved as one of the last examples of the great desertification that happened from the 1600's onward in large parts of the country. Or rather, they are trying to preserve it, and failing. After the forest has caught on, there is no stopping it again within a reasonable budget. I think that is a good thing, though I do miss riding through the desert.
posted by mumimor at 2:33 AM on July 11, 2019 [4 favorites]

I think the diversity is more beautiful than a sterile expanse of green.

No discussion of lawn preferences would be complete without a reminder that in many cases people keep their lawns sterile because HOAs make them.
posted by corb at 6:29 AM on July 11, 2019 [5 favorites]

See also EO Wilson's half Earth idea.

(I found this in Kim Stanley Robinson's New York 2140)
posted by doctornemo at 6:49 AM on July 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

No discussion of lawn preferences would be complete without a reminder that in many cases people keep their lawns sterile because HOAs make them.

That is a challenge. Can you have herbaceous borders within those perfect lawns? My gran had a garden that was almost all border and no grass.
posted by mumimor at 7:06 AM on July 11, 2019

I think in some areas this would work. But where I live in Texas, this would be a nightmare with the chiggers, mosquitoes, indomitable weeds, mice, rats, and worst of all the coral and rattle snakes. The only way I could see this working where I live would be to have a number pf well-maintained paths and well-contained wild areas, which would require a lot of work. One house down the road has let their front and back yard "rewild" and it's a bane for his neighbors due to the dramatic rise in pests as well as looking terrible. I realize lawns get a bad rap these days but there was a good reason for them in the first place, keep out dangerous pests from around the house, keep down dust from getting in the house and provide a comfortable place for families to enjoy being outdoors. For us, the better solution has been horse-herb, a drought-resistant ground cover that requires little if any watering, no fertilization and a less regular mowing than grass, and it looks like a nice lawn.
posted by SA456 at 7:32 AM on July 11, 2019

This is a wonderful thread, thanks to all the folks contributing.

I also like learning about options that split the difference between "heavily fertilized monoculture lawn" and "four feet tall uncontrolled plants (like the horse herb mentioned above).

Our tiny yard is mostly mulch beds, but I've been gradually buying pollinator-friendly plants to add to the existing hostas. One downside is I think our local bugs also think the local plants are VERY TASTY so they're getting eaten down and I worry they won't make it over the winter. So far so good though!
posted by brilliantine at 7:55 AM on July 11, 2019

The thing with my grandmother's garden was that she didn't really live there, she lived at the farm. My grandfather lived there, when he was working in the city, but he didn't garden. So my gran asked a landscape architect to design a garden that was nearly no maintenance, would satisfy the HOA, and was good for sitting and doing nothing (or having tea or dinner) in.
The designer divided the garden into squares, each with a couple or three strong flowering perennials that could withstand any weed attacks, I remember lavender and sage, there were several more, but anyway you would need to find local expertise for this part. She also had a mulberry tree, I loved that, a cherry tree, and a huge wisteria on the facade of the house. I lived there with my grandfather for a year, while I was in high school, and it was a magical garden, filled with bees, butterflies, birds and even a fox sometimes, and somehow warmer (a positive in the North) and definitely prettier than all the neighboring lawns. It would have been even better with a bird bath, but my granddad couldn't even manage to fill that. (While he planted forests at the farm. Go figure).
A landscaper came for four hours twice a year to remove any weeds and sculpt the small trees, and that was all the maintenance. No watering, no mowing. AFAIK, the new owners have kept the garden which must now be about 40 years old, so the return on the original investment in an expert in plants was more than worth it.
In sum, it was a garden based on local plants (except the mulberry) and it supported biodiverse fauna while being low in maintenance and OK for the neighbors.
posted by mumimor at 8:10 AM on July 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

Rewilding Scotland
posted by mumimor at 11:35 AM on July 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

I've mostly "rewilded" my own yard with native and near-native perennial food plants, and I've just leased some vacant land (through a county land bank program that rezones floodplain regions for agricultural use) near my house to make a larger food forest in my small midwestern city. Now I have dreams of doing this all over the city, creating spaces of carefully designed neglect for wild things to take over.

My yard isn't pretty, to people who like lawns. But I have neighbors stopping to take pictures, pick fruit, and ask questions every day during the spring and summer. There are a lot more bugs. And a lot more bats, and rabbits, and other wildlife I don't normally see in my neighborhood. These things might not be something you're comfortable with, but I'm convinced we all need to lean into our discomfort here, because the expectations about comfort and sterility we've built into our culture can't last. We need to find new ways to appreciate the world around us.

Thanks for this post. I've read half the links and will be digging in to the rest and sharing them with friends.
posted by libraritarian at 12:12 PM on July 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

One person to follow for this kind of stuff and the broader idea of restorative agriculture/horticulture is @BuildSoil here’s an entire thread about stacking functions efficiently Don’t forget about Trellis for designing more plant space , ponds are excellent for increasing ecosystem complexity!
posted by The Whelk at 4:29 PM on July 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

I was in a eco-radical discord a year or two ago. My time there was really brief, namely because I strongly opposed everyone's take on the "idyllic" world where we all lived in rural areas and took bikes to the farmers market. The idea that farmland wasn't eco-friendly was heresy to them, even after explaining that wildlife isn't welcome on farmland, crops weren't native plants, and contain pesticides, even if they're organic ones.

You see much the same in British circles. I have worked with ecologists who have an interest in rewilding and they're all adamant that no housing development or green belt encroachment is half as bad as the effects of modern (read: post-WWII) agricultural practices. As far as they're concerned the open fields of wheat are functionally sterile - the "arable desert" - compared to the hedgerows that run between them, and a properly planned development with sufficient space put aside for semi-natural habitat will inevitably provide vastly better results for biodiversity.

Hence the interest in Knepp Farm, where something like rewilding has taken place. This initially attracted huge amounts of scorn from other farmers of the same age as the owner, who felt not only that it was foolish economically but actively un-patriotic, from a 'feeding the nation' sort of sensibility. But apparently the reaction from very elderly or retired farmers was that the messiness and the presence of wildlife, particularly the birdsong, was a lot closer to the pre-WWI farming of their childhood. This is what gets ecologists talking.

Thank you for the links, particularly to Dip Flash and unearthed. I'd not really considered how obviously European a lot of the concept of rewilding is and how poorly it travels to places with actively disenfranchised native peoples.
posted by ocular shenanigans at 5:55 AM on July 12, 2019

I'd not really considered how obviously European a lot of the concept of rewilding is and how poorly it travels to places with actively disenfranchised native peoples.

The term is used a bit in the US, mostly by activists and in regards to small projects like suburban lawns; no large-scale public or private ecological restoration project is using that term, to my knowledge.

Partly it is about the central role tribes (US) and first nations (Canada) play in natural resources projects -- in many cases the tribes are the implementers or project partners; even when not, at a minimum tribal concurrence is required for permitting under Section 106, etc. So even the most tone-deaf projects here tend to have to at least minimally acknowledge the pre-contact landscape and cultures.

But part of it is also how restoration (or rewilding) projects tend to have very different focuses in the Americas vs Europe. A lot of the European rewilding projects are focused on restoring missing species and species interactions (eg the role of grazing animals, or the return of beaver in a few locations), while projects in the US and Canada tend more often to be focused on removing physical elements of past anthropogenic impacts (eg dams, levees, bank hardening, roadways) and restoring species connectivity between existing habitats.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:26 AM on July 12, 2019 [4 favorites]

Bring Back the Elephants
posted by homunculus at 9:30 AM on July 13, 2019

Speaking of proposals that don’t consider native peoples...
posted by Dip Flash at 10:57 AM on July 13, 2019

Putting pigs in the shade: the radical farming system banking on trees
A farm in Portugal is showing how the ancient art of silvopasture – combining livestock with productive trees – may offer some real answers to the climate crisis
posted by mumimor at 11:17 AM on July 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

The Guardian view on lawns and verges: go wild
posted by mumimor at 2:39 AM on July 19, 2019

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