Quite a few years ago now, I started "talking" with my books by underlining passages that spoke to me and by writing comments in the margins. It was hard to do at first, but once I got over my good-girl habits of keeping my books pristine, I found that it really helps when I go back to a book to review and refresh myself about what it said. Most importantly, doing this provides a conversation to join when I reread the book. I can see what captured my attention originally and compare those ideas to what strikes me now, making my understanding of the book deeper with each reading. Occasionally I've even shared a book with a friend and invited her to comment (in a different color ink), which adds yet another level of interaction with the written words.
Because of this habit I have of physically talking with my books in written form, one of my easiest "sorts" for which books I want to keep and which ones just need to be passed along is a simple look to see whether or not I've underlined and commented in the book in question. If it wasn't interesting enough to mark up, it's not interesting enough to keep. Maybe someone else needs that book more than I do.
As I sat down this afternoon to start thinking about writing this review, I began to thumb through the pages. An entire paragraph highlighted here. Exclamation point there. "Great series of questions...." on one page. Lots of "Wow!" and "Yes!" comments in the margin. Ideas for blog posts. Books to read. More underlining. Asterisks. Occasional notes asking about sources for certain claims. There is so much to digest here that I've become convinced A New Garden Ethic would make a wonderful book for a gardening book club to read and discuss - probably over a long weekend, as a single hour or two wouldn't be nearly long enough.
One interesting twist to this ecological gardening book is its author, Benjamin Vogt. Dr. Vogt has a PhD, but it's in creative writing, not in biology or ecology or horticulture or landscape architecture or any of the myriad fields that one would normally associate with a book of this nature. That said, prairie and ecological garden design are obviously deep passions for Vogt and he's educated himself accordingly. Coming from a creative background, his writing has a vibrancy that can sometimes be lacking in more scientific tomes.
I'll be up front, though: to me, Vogt's lack of scientific training shows up rather glaringly here as a lack of citations for some of his specific facts. It is not enough to say Scientist Y did a study in which she found xyz. I want to know where to find that study - what journal was it published in? when and where was the study performed? what were the parameters? I want to be able to delve into some of those studies more closely to see if the findings are being accurately reported in what was written. I may want to use those statistics in something I write, too, but I'm not going to quote statistics without knowing where they come from, even in a simple blog post. A revised edition with this major flaw remedied would strengthen this book significantly, in my opinion.
Beyond that flaw, though, there's an incredible amount of substance in this book that captures my spirit and that doesn't rely on specific studies or individual facts. Take this wonderful passage that I've seen others pull from the book as a quote, "We live in a world of perfectly spaced plants that mimic headstones aligned in exact intervals. Wood mulch is more important to us than flowers. We clean up our gardens like they are living rooms after the children have gone to bed." With 3 lines, Vogt has given us several iconic images that capture the lack of real life in so many modern gardens.
In the first chapter of this book, Vogt gives us a basic framework about what he sees as being right and wrong about most gardens, yards, and natural areas in our current day and age. This framework leads him to a statement of a new garden ethic that he believes we need to live by if we want to have our gardens function as more than just a pretty fashion accessory...and Vogt is compelling as he shows us why we want our gardens to function so richly.
With native plants being integral to ecological function in any landscape, Chapter 2 is generally a discussion of native plants, their importance, and the pushback against their use in many circles. There's a small, fascinating section on the politics and culture of using native plants: is it "fair" or "democratic" to say that gardeners should only use native plants? "When we step in and impose our ideals of democracy on a landscape, we disrupt and destroy the landscape, altering life processes that have worked long before we created human democracy...." Vogt notes that plant culture should not be mistaken for human culture, that nature and ecosystem function have little to do with patriotism or freedom or other political concepts.
In the remaining 3 chapters of the book, Vogt discusses a wide variety of topics ranging from cognitive dissonance and the value of anger and hopelessness to the impact of the Enlightenment on where we are today, all with the object of moving us towards developing and being willing to utilize the defiant compassion that he believes we need to bring to our relationship with our landscapes and gardens.
A New Garden Ethic is a call to action, a call to enrich our own lives and the world immediately around us by connecting deeply to our specific physical environs. By answering this call, Vogt believes we can each help to save the planet's living fabric, one garden at a time.