Monday, October 22, 2018


After running across and deeply enjoying Nancy Lawson's blog, Humane Gardener, I was excited when I realized she was writing a book by the same name.  The subtitle of her blog is perfect, "Cultivating Compassion for All Creatures Great and Small".  Lawson worked for many years as an editor for the Humane Society of the United States - and I think that caring and compassion for ALL animals has seeped into her psyche, based on the writing she shares both on her blog and in her book.

The Humane Gardener:  Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife, by Nancy Lawson, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, New York, 2017 is a relatively small book, almost a series of 6 essays rather than a scientific tome or an intense guide of gardening methodologies.  Each essay, or chapter, is accompanied by a "portrait" of a real garden and its real gardener, exemplifying the characteristics talked about in the companion chapter.  The gardens range from California to Florida, from Ontario to Oregon, with Colorado and the Chicago area filling in the area in the middle.

More than most gardening books, The Humane Gardener focuses on the animals that are so often collateral damage in modern gardening methods:  from the wide variety of small animals that get chopped up, along with the grass, by lawnmowers to the tiny denizens of leaf litter when it's allowed to lie undisturbed under shrubs and perennials.  There are a few statistics ("The nestlings of 96 percent of North American terrestrial bird species survive on spiders and insects, mostly caterpillars, who are themselves babies with specialized habitat needs....") but most of the information and advice is given in anecdotal form, which makes it easy to digest.

In the book's introduction, Lawson remarks that the gardeners she chose to highlight "embody the ethic of compassionate landscaping, challenging long-held assumptions about animals, plants, and themselves."   Compassionate landscaping.  Compassionate landscaping.  I love that term and the ethic it defines.  The Humane Gardener is a great introduction to this ethical concept.

This ethical concept does not, however, meld well with the perfection-driven standards promoted in most regular garden literature, and Lawson talks about her journey from a mainstream gardener to a compassionate gardener, from being willingly sucked into the "marketing ploys of the Landscaping Industrial Complex" to learning from the plants and animals sharing her yard with her.  In her garden portraits, she often talks about the journeys these other gardeners have made, too. 

As a map of a changing journey in gardening, this book is written as a general guide of concepts which can be used across the entire country.  Thus there is little talk of specifics:  don't look to this book for which particular species to use where or what the best method of performing a particular task is.  The overarching ideas Lawson shares are widely adaptable and easily understandable, though.

The last section of The Humane Gardener is a series of resources you can turn to if you want to get started practicing compassionate landscaping yourself:  among them are a couple addresses for excellent blogs, a short list of regional references for wildlife habitat gardening, notes on the individual chapters, and a selected bibliography.

I greatly enjoyed The Humane Gardener and I would highly recommend it to anyone intrigued by the idea of using compassionate landscaping in their own home environs.

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