Winter Solstice Thoughts about "Novel Ecosystems"

On this winter solstice, which occurs in our Pacific time zone at 9:30 pm today, December 21, I've been exploring the idea of ecological restoration on the web. There is always something new to think about. Now I've stumbled upon the (not so new) idea of novel ecosystems and I'm not quite sure what to think about the idea. These are first thoughts, and not much edited - I reserve the right to change all the thinking expressed below at any time!

Definition. A novel ecosystem is one ...

... containing new combinations of species that arise through human action, environmental change, and the impacts of the deliberate and inadvertent introduction of species from other regions.
Source: Citation: Hobbs,Richard J.;Arico, Salvatore; Aronson, James; Baron, Jill S.; Bridgewater, Peter; Cramer, Viki A.; Epstein, Paul R.; Ewel, John J.; Klink, Carlos A.; Lugo, Ariel E.; Norton, David; Ojima, Dennis; Richardson David M.; Sanderson, Eric W.; Valladares, Fernando; VilĂ , Montserrat; Zamora, Regino; Zobel, Martin;  2006.  Novel ecosystems: theoretical and management aspects of the new ecological world order.   Global Ecology and Biogeography, (Global Ecol. Biogeogr.)15, :1–7.

I think the idea is - hey folks, these ecosystems are here now. What do we do about them? Let's face up to reality. The idea also is, it seems to me, to get off the "guilt trip" of feeling bad about trashing the environment, and look for the positive in all these new combinations of life forms that we have brought together as we stir up the ecological pot that is the earth.

One person who has embraced this idea within the scope of landscape restoration is Emma Maris. She has a book out on the topic: Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. You can read an interview with her on this page in the American Society of Landscape Architects web site. I won't comment - just read and ponder and cogitate.

On a blog called Ambiance, I read this about the novel ecosystem approach:
It’s about the futility and silliness of control and purism.  It’s about humans not as the destroyers of nature but its wild card, its agents of creative destruction.
It seems to be a "camp." For those in this camp, we in the restoration camp are characterized as puritanical zealots, or even "native plant Nazis" a term that we find offensive on this blog for various reasons.  Why oh why do we divide up in this way, vilifying the "other side?"

I like the very simple and universal principles of restoration expressed on this Central Minnesota (birthplace of my dear Rat) blog, "Restoring the Landscape with Native Plants" - (I'm linking to today's post, Is That Species Native? which is along the same lines as this one, and Town Mouse's prior post in this space, Native Plants and Garden Hybrids.) The principles support biodiversity of local flora and fauna. None of them is specific to Central Minnesota, yet following them would yield a landscape very specifically Central Minnesotan, just as, applied on the Central Coast region of California, they would yield a very specifically local landscape. Yes, this is for me!

How you manage a chunk of mother earth does depend on what state it is currently in. For a person from the Old World to find herself in the New World is an amazement. Our UK landscapes are worked over thoroughly, with some exceptions - think wildflowers and hedgehogs in hedgerows, and some remnants of the wild in marginal areas. Living here on three acres of native splendor, however compromised, is a privilege I never stop appreciating, and to do anything other than cherish this spot's unique qualities does have a taint of sacrilege to it, I admit.

I need to think about this more. I certainly do acknowledge that we are where we are. We have Mediterranean grasses all over California, for example, and they're not going away. But - I find this "it's all good in this the best of all possible worlds" kind of approach a bit too glib. The relief from guilt is all too palpable, and I hold that a little guilt is good for the soul, a sign that our moral sense is alive and operating.

I'm reminded of the joke I saw recently: the planet is at the doctor's office, and the doctor says, "I'm sorry to inform you that you've got humans."

Biological evolution is slow - which is why I have little truck with novel ecosystems. But I have some optimism that cultural evolution can be rapid indeed. I need to believe that, because otherwise I'll be depressed about the long term effects of our shortsighted mammalian tendencies.


Excellent post, with the potential to generate a lot of discussion. I think some of the vilificiation comes from one or the other side being determined that their approach is the only 'right' one when it comes to manipulating ecosystems.

I thought a lot about 'restoration' and/or 'native gardening' after moving here. When we started, I expected to be a purist, a true restorationist, but the more I ruminated on the concept, the more absurd it seemed to me. Personally, I've settled, be it right or wrong, on a middle ground, as restoration, in its purest sense, seems unattainable to me. To which point does one restore? Pre-European? Pre-human? I don't even know what the pre-human landscape here would necessarily have looked like, except I know the houses, and the roads would be gone.

I studied a lot of archaeology, paleontology, anthropology, ecology, and earth history in college. One thing that is clear is that even without direct human interference, landscapes aren't static, they never have been. They're constantly in flux. The earth itself is constantantly in flux. Can we accelerate change? Yes. Have we as a species done harm? No question. Our species is part of the earth though, and restoration in its pure form smacked too much of pretending we were never here, and had no influence, which to my mind simply isn't rational.

For me, rather than get too obsessed with "restoration" per se, I strive principally not to damage my small chunk of the planet here, and to undo some of the harms already done by those before me. My hope is that I may even make it better during the time I'm here, but with the understanding that if the land was abandoned after I'm gone, that Nature would quickly reclaim her own balance.

When it comes to gardening, even if I only planted natives, I'm still manipulating the landscape by bringing in native plants that don't naturally occur on this 7 1/2 acres. Native Epilobiums didn't exist here, nor the sages, before I arrived, but does that mean I shouldn't plant them? We've seen more native insect and bird species here since we began planting. That means I've affected change. Is that wrong? I choose native plants first, with the rationale of sustaining native populations, but I'm still making change. If it increases biodiversity, and contributes to sustaining native insect and animal populations, and doesn't displace what naturally grows here, I don't particularly see the harm. Perhaps that's selfish of me, but I'm clearly not a purist. If I was, our vegetables and fruits would be out of the question here. So, despite where I thought I'd be a few years ago, I obviously am NOT a restorationist. Just a gardener with a conscience. Sorry I'm so's not a simple topic! ;)
Country Mouse said…
No apology necessary for your response CVF! I appreciate your thoughts - Your process has been a lot like mine, though our outcomes are a little different in terms of our horticultural practices - I love to propagate what grows here, and hope to pump more of it into our local environment. I acknowledge freely that that too is effecting change. I've also come to appreciate that bringing in very-near-locals might enrich the local-local gene pool. I'm still mulling that idea over.
Anonymous said…
Creative destruction? I'd call it destructive destruction. I don't see what is creative about thoughtlessly if not intentionally killing other beings we share the planet with. Interestingly, everyone can agree that it's kind of a shame that we no longer have dodos or carrier pigeons. But plants are more difficult to relate to.

I still think it's important to encourage the underdogs, which are in our case the CA native plants. We can set aside pieces of the land for our own use, such as growing apples or building a house. But let's refrain from meddling where we can. This god-like "we can do what we want and who knows what amazing things will happen" is surely going to come back to haunt us.
Country Mouse said…
Thanks for leaving your thoughts, Anon. I actually feel bad even when killing weeds. I have to think of it as a kind of purging of infection. Each little plant is a miracle of life. I know it sounds very corny, but it's just what is.
Brent said…
This was a thought provoking blog post. Thanks. The blurb on Amazon about _Rambunctious Garden_ says, "Emma Marris argues convincingly that it is time to look forward and create the "rambunctious garden," a hybrid of wild nature and human management."

Of course this statement assumes that the human management component of a rambunctious garden is feasible. However, based on the garden ignorance I see in the general public and the distaste among the public for the perceived expense of our current ecological management policies and practices, I don't see how the management component of a rambunctious garden could possibly work.

Aside from the principles argument, the advantage of restoration efforts is that when successful they require minimal input.
MM said…
I would not know where to begin to turn our 1 acre back to anything close to its natural state. It has been suburban for about 60 years, and before that it was farmed. There are two California native species in my yard that have planted themselves - coast live oak and coyote brush. Other than that, everything that comes up here is non-native. In untouched areas (or more correctly the uncultivated areas - roadsides and the barrancas that have always been too steep for agriculture) I see a few more - jimsonweed and coast sagebrush - but many, many more non-native exotics.
I see a few areas of my county that are much as they were a couple of hundred years ago, and I can recognize how precious and worthwhile it is to have places like that. A “novel ecosystem” may be worth studying, but it is also populated by a smaller variety of plants, and populated preferentially by plants that, like certain animals (rats, coyotes, and human beings, for instance), are able to adapt to many different conditions of life. A lot that has been vacant for 50 years is not the same as a wilderness.
I would hope that we save as many undisturbed places possible, and bring more places back to a similar state, but the sad truth is, as much as we may argue about the value of undisturbed ecosystems, the general culture doesn’t even recognize the value of either undisturbed or novel ecosystems. People who believe that wild or partially-wild land is important have a lot in common, and need to remember that, in a world where many see plants just as green stuff between the supermarket and the parking lot.
Country Mouse said…
Good point, Brent, about minimal maintenance if appropriate natives are used. And sorry to say MM has a good and well put point too about the green between the parking lot and the supermarket. MM your comments about your property remind me of Judith Lowry Larner's description of her property in Bolinas which was a horse paddock. If you happen to be interested, MM, you could look up what should be local and introduce that, as a reconstruction and - as Brent says - maintenance is minimal in such garden spaces. has a site where you can see what is native in your zip code, or you can use another criterion: Thanks for engaging in this topic!
ryan said…
I like the joke about the doctor saying, 'I'm sorry but you've got humans.' Personally I think the novel ecosystems argument goes too far, over-correcting, just like the native purists and the nativist haters also go too far. A lot of it feels like an argument that is separate from reality.

For what it's worth, biological evolution doesn't necessarily happen slowly; it often happens in quick bursts separated by long periods of inactivity. I think humans, to our shame, are responsible for a mass extinction event, but they have happened in the several times in the past. We're more like an ugly part of the big picture evolutionary process.
Country Mouse said…
Short of totally nuking the planet,I agree with you, Ryan, that life goes on despite catastrophes like meteors hitting the earth and wiping out dinosaurs etc. I'm curious how rapid you mean. What I read about punctuated equilbrium or its variants seems to say that it's rapid only in geological terms - 50,000 to 100,000 years. Maybe there are other theories, though; I've only read a little Dawkins and less Gould!
Country Mouse said…
This is worth a new post in itself but I just want to capture it for anybody reading this post "out of order": Article in today's (Jan2, 2012 SFGate newspaper: "Richardson Bay atoll renovated as nature preserve" - Its about an artificial island created by mindless developer soil dumping, and some other fill sources, which grew into a "novel" i.e. trash landscape. Quote:

"The island, which is owned by Marin County and managed by the Marin County Department of Parks and Open Space, was supposed to become a wildlife preserve as mitigation for a nearby development, but it has been sitting there untouched for a quarter of a century. Half of the island eroded over the years, and the upland area became overgrown with nonnative plants and grasses."

Now there is a huge well-funded effort to remove invasives and revegetate with local natives - and they're hoping it will attract the seals and birds and other wildlife that would naturally use such a habitat. This is great news!
Read more:
ryan said…
That's definitely an interesting example of restoration, an island made of landfill as part of a real estate developer's deal with the community later getting planted with regional natives. It's great that it is going to be managed with natives, but also an example of how weird our culture is when it comes to land management or, in this case, creation.

I haven't read all that much lately and it's all a bit half-remembered, but I think the changes wrought by humans have been taking place for a while and are going to fit into the kind of thousands of year measuring you're talking about. Even if it feels like the extinctions are happening in a few hundred years, I think they go back longer, including the arrival of the Maori in New Zealand for sure and probably the arrivals or risings of humans in other land masses like North America, Europe, and Australia (I've read that archaeologists are finding that native Californians and natives in the Amazon were making impacts on an ecosystem-wide scale), and I think unfortunately that the extinctions are going to happen for a lot longer. And the other thing, the part that makes me angry instead of just sad, is that the healing -- the evolution of new niche species after we create 'novel' monocultures of generalist species -- will take such a long long time. I think we are actually making a fifty or one hundred thousand year scar in the record. But I don't really know; it's been a while since I did any significant reading about this stuff so my opinions have probably veered away from anything accurate.
Country Mouse said…
Ryan, it's true humans have been affecting or managing the landscape for millenia. I don't know about the Maori, interesting to check into. I do know about the California native people, having read up on that, and wrote about it a while back in a post. I've certainly come to realize that restoration is a misleading word. The issue seems to me to be one of scale, both in time and space. We are so many and have such powerful tools. I've been reading John McPhee in "The Control of Nature" about the engineering efforts to control the Mississippi river - written before Hurricane Katrina etc - and it just boggles my mind. People living in the shadow of these huge levees feel it is their right to live there because they've lived there for a hundred years - I can understand their attachment to the land and the towns, but really, prima facie, it all seems like folly on such a massive scale. I wonder what it all costs even in simple $$ terms never mind ecological and human ones.